Changing the conversation about mental health at the University of Manitoba

Last month in the United States, National Suicide Prevention Week took place to engage and inform health-care professionals and the general public about the major cause of premature and preventable deaths: suicide. Across the country, people were given an opportunity to remember those lost to suicide, support survivors of suicide, and reinforce the message that suicide is preventable.

Research from Statistics Canada shows that “mental illness is the most important risk factor for suicide; and that more than 90 per cent of people who commit suicide have a mental or addictive disorder.” Furthermore, there is no one single determining factor, but a combination of factors, including—but not limited to—mental illness, with depression being the most common type of illness among those who die from suicide.

The Active Minds student group at the University of Manitoba is part of a broader international movement to bring awareness to suicide prevention and mental health issues.

On the Active Minds campaign website it reads that “suicide claims the lives of more than 1,100 college students each year.”

The campaign itself is oriented to stop the stigma preventing students who struggle with mental health issues from seeking help.

Alison Malmon founded Active Minds on the University of Pennsylvania campus in 2003 after her brother, Brian Malmon, killed himself. Since this tragic incident, the mental health awareness movement has expanded onto more than 350 university and college campuses across the U.S.

Deborah Chan, U of M nursing student and one of the lead campaign organizers, told the Manitoban that Active Minds was the first mental health group ever established on campus. Chan expressed how surprising this was, considering that the “U of M is such an old university, and one in four students will suffer from mental health issues.”

Katie Kutryk, a health and wellness educator on campus, initiated the student group and supplies them with resources and connections to mental health experts and crisis services.

“The initiation of Active Minds was in response to the lack of a student-run, student-led mental health awareness, education, and advocacy group on campus,” Kutryk told the Manitoban.

From a nursing perspective, Chan spoke about why our definition of health must incorporate both physical and emotional health, and how important it is to promote mental health awareness.

The new student group has reached out to students across campus. It has a contact list of about 50 members, and a core group of between 10-20 active participants.

“I just heard about the group, and then I got involved,” said Cindy Ye, current president of Active Minds.

“We are [here for] advocacy. We are not here to act as a counsellor because we by no means have that knowledge, but we would probably direct [students with mental health issues or suicidal concerns] to peers – to talk to peers or the Student Counselling Centre.”

Ye wants students to know that there are people and resources available. Cards with crisis phone lines and suicide prevention lines are available to the student group and sometimes distributed to students by members.

“It’s about knowing the symptoms [of mental health suffering] and being aware that this stuff does happen and to be ready to deal with it before it’s too late,” explained Ye.

“[Malmon’s brother] was suffering from a mental illness. She didn’t think he was unhappy; he was a pretty popular guy, so she was thinking like, ‘He was really loved,’” said Ye. “So, she was unaware and then one day [her brother] just committed suicide.

“She was devastated because she didn’t talk to him but she wished that she did.

“She doesn’t want the same thing to happen to other people.”

According to the Huffington Post, Active Minds is “the nation’s leading organization dedicated to empowering students to speak openly about mental health in order to educate others and encourage seeking help.”

Their group is organizing a chalking event to bring visibility and awareness to the issue of stigma surrounding mental health diagnoses, and change the conversation about mental health.

Ye explained that using chalk to express mental health issues is effective because it makes people stop and ask about it.

She said that Active Minds is “all about changing the conversation about mental health

“We are hoping this year we can do a little more.”

The chalking event to raise awareness and ignite conversations about mental health will be taking place soon (as of the Manitoban’s production deadline it had been postponed over weather concerns). To get involved, or for more info, email activemindsumanitoba@gmail.com or visit their facebook page.