Student organizations put mental health front-and-centre

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Mental health is a hot topic these days among Canadians, with research showing improved attitudes toward mental health, a decrease in related stigmas, and an overall greater awareness of mental health issues compared to previous years.

The surge in social media channels and related messaging, along with widespread TV and radio advertising on the subject has been a huge push factor.

Helping the cause are organizations like Bell and its Let’s Talk campaign which, now in its sixth year, has spent more than $50 million (with a further five-year commitment topping $100 million) in its quest to get Canadians talking about mental health in the mainstream.

Student LifeLineStudent LifeLine Flyer - Athabasca University

AU’s two student organizations, AUGSA and AUSU (representing graduate and undergraduate students, respectively), have joined the mental health awareness bandwagon, providing students with access to a high-quality support resource with a free, 24-7, 365-day emotional well-being program.

Student LifeLine is the brainchild of Toronto-based Ceridian HCM. It’s available to AU’s 46,000 students worldwide. The vehicle comes in the form of a toll-free hotline and website support that connects students to certified professionals—either face-to-face (not available outside of Canada), on the phone, or via video counselling.

“This is a student-assisted program to provide professional support for maintaining a healthy balance between school, work and everyday life,” says Susan Elliott, an account executive with Ceridian HCM.

Athabasca University Graduate Students’ Association President Cynthia Gordon says it’s important AU’s unions “look at mental health as a whole.”

“We’ve got a population with a lot more on their plate, generally speaking, than your traditional bricks and mortar schools,” says Gordon from her home in Innisfill, Ont.

LifeLine counselling is “short-term and solution-focused,” explains Elliott. It also aligns with AU’s model of offering open, flexible and solution-focused programs to students online.

Global advice

“It doesn’t matter where the student is,” adds Elliott.

“We have an affiliate network of 3,000-plus counsellors across Canada. He or she could be on summer vacation in Toronto, they could be in Newfoundland; this program is open and available to them.”

(Although the 24-7 telephone line, email counselling and thousands of LifeLine resources can be accessed online from anywhere in the world, students outside of Canada will not be able to access counselling face-to-face.)

“Overall, and across the country, student mental health is huge. AU students’ needs tend to be different and complex,” adds Gordon, pointing to Athabasca University’s typically older demographic juggling full-time jobs with families who are “suddenly finding themselves going back to school.”

Those factors run atop the gamut of issues plaguing university students, including relationships, household debt, or anxiety over exam deadlines.

“Students are under a tremendous amount of stress in terms of accumulating debt and other issues,” notes Ross Tyson, executive director, AUGSA, based in Edmonton.

“We pay for that service for our students at AU; we feel it’s that important. The Masters and PhD students are generally working, balancing a career with a family, car-and-house payments—and the list of ‘ands’ goes on,” he says.

It doesn’t matter where the student is … He or she could be on summer vacation in Toronto, they could be in Newfoundland; this program is open and available to them.” ~ Susan Elliott, Ceridian HCM

Student mental health was a key topic at last September’s Graduate Student Conference in Edmonton. Elliott was on hand to talk about the program and how AU grad students could apply it to their busy lives.

Says Tyson: “It was a no-brainer for us to include student mental health when the program committee sat down to determine our presentation topics.”

LifeLine’s timeline

Elliott explains that initial research, prior to unveiling LifeLine at post-secondary schools nationally, indicated there was an opening to provide students an alternative to the lengthy wait times many expressed they were experiencing at their campus counselling offices.

AUSU’s president Shawna Wasylyshyn spent about a year championing to bring the program to AU undergrads for last September (she had seen how successful the program was among AU’s graduate union counterpart); she believed the offering was “strongly needed,” and, importantly, that it would be “in all lines of sight” for students.

“As soon as they suffer, let’s say, a loss of a family member, or an illness, or anything [that might be mentally or emotionally demobilizing], and they come across an ad or a poster or an email with information about Student Lifeline—that’s when they might say, ‘Oh wow! I’m going to take advantage of this,’” says Wasylyshyn.

AUSU reached out to the AU community ensuring both faculty and academic advisors were informed about the benefit of the Student LifeLine program. It became a guerilla marketing campaign Wasylyshyn says, promoted extensively through the AUSU’s ap, social media, and all of its internal promotional vehicles.

She notes undergraduate students are impacted by the same lifestyle issues that affect many Canadians. “You might just feel hopeless, or that there’s no help for you…but if that help sort of fell into your lap, you might think ‘this is exactly what I need.’

“Students, like everyone else, get the holiday blues. And after the holidays, some of them are trying to figure out how to pay their holiday bills—and now that we’re in the midst of an economic downturn—there’s all that!”

We pay for that service for our students at AU; we feel it’s that important. The Masters and PhD students are generally working, balancing a career with a family, car-and-house payments—and the list of ‘ands’ goes on.” ~ Ross Tyson, executive director, AUGSA

Early metrics indicate the program is working. Stats from the first three months of service alone indicate there were more than 800 visits to the Student LifeLine website—with its ‘Depression Centre’ showing as a popular feature. It’s an interactive program designed to teach students coping mechanisms while providing strategies for dealing with anxiety and depression.

Wasylyshyn says she’s not surprised with the uptake. Undergraduate students also completed 45 self-assessments from the site, the most clicked-on topic outlining depression indicators.

“These early statistics tell us this service is absolutely something that was missing for [undergraduate] students at AU—and that we’ve done a good job getting it into the hands of the members. Along with the continued support, the use of the service will probably only increase.”