Speaking up for mental illness

Graphic by: S. Arden Hill

Join your fellow students throughout the week in a challenge to Stomp Out Stigma. The University of Manitoba is taking part in Mental Illness Awareness Week, a national project coordinated by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health (CAMIMH).

Mental Illness Awareness Week has been held for over 20 years.

“The goal is to reduce stigma,” said Nicole Chammartin, executive director of the Winnipeg Region of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). Stigmas often associated with mental illness involve the notion of violent, crazy, or antisocial behaviours.

A variety of activities are scheduled to occur on campus from Monday, Oct. 7 to Friday, Oct. 11, including “We Love Dogs” by St. John’s Ambulance.

Students can visit the fireplace lounge from 11:30 to 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday (Tuesday in the Buhler Atrium at the Bannatyne campus) to relax and de-stress with pet therapy dogs. Interaction with our canine friends can help counteract negative feelings, specifically those associated with depression and anxiety.

The Gold Card will be handed out for the first time this week. Crafted by the Health and Wellness Program, the Counselling and Career Centre, and Student Advocacy, the Gold Card is a small reference card listing mental health resources both on and off campus.

Lisa Erickson, a nursing student at the U of M, spoke to the Manitoban about her experience coping with a mental illness while being in university.

Erickson has schizoaffective disorder, an illness she described as including symptoms of depression, mania, and psychosis.

“When I was depressed it was hard to make it to class; it was hard to concentrate. [It’s the] same as when I’m psychotic: it’s hard to concentrate for sure. In general it’s hard to find people who understand. It’s just hard to get support,” she explained.

Although the U of M campus has a drop-in service for personal counselling sessions, Erickson was turned away twice before she was able to secure an appointment and speak with a professional. Drop-in appointments are limited and available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“Once we got the ball rolling, the help was there. But just getting started, getting turned away, and feeling like nobody really cares, that was how it felt starting out,” she said. It was two months before Erickson saw a psychiatrist at University Health Service. The psychiatrist only visits there once every two weeks.

Students who hear Erickson’s story often relate to her experiences, confiding their own depression and anxiety. However, many of these students have not sought treatment for their own mental illness.

Erickson spoke at a kickoff event by CMHA Monday night about her experiences with mental illness. Fortunately, the responses she has received when speaking on the topic have been positive, with many people commending her bravery.

“Everyone’s been really supportive,” she said.

Luckily Erickson has not experienced the stigma of mental illness herself, but Chammartin indicated that stigma is still present in Canada.

“I think stigma still exists [ . . . ] Stigma arises from fear, the fear of the unknown. What changes fear is making something that’s unknown, known,” she offered. “The piece that I do believe is changing in Canada, and certainly in our community, is the amount people are talking about it.”

Students can take personal steps towards caring for their mental health.

Chammartin suggested making a list of the top things that are disturbing students in their private lives. From this list, she recommended making a plan as to what changes can be made personally, and what things are outside of a person’s control. She also advised creating small goals for change with rewards along the way.

“When we make small changes in our life we can often have [a] big payout,” she said.

Mental illness manifests in various ways, but Erickson shared some warning signs. She listed “any kind of withdrawal from friends or from classes,” as well as sadness lasting for more than a few days as examples.

Students wishing to access personal counselling should visit 474 University Centre at 8:30 a.m. as limited drop-in appointments are available. The centre also offers group workshops in a wide range of topics, such as mood management, career planning, and relationship strengthening.