New mental health program at U of C

By Emily Macphail

Alberta Health Services has recently rolled out a new program aimed at improving the mental health of youth through the use of pre-existing support in the community. The Community Helpers program– based on a similar program in Seattle, Washington and developed in Edmonton– is currently being tested at 14 pilot sites across Alberta, one of which is the University of Calgary Wellness Centre.

The program has funding from Alberta Health Services for two years, with the hope that individual sites will then become self-sufficient.

A 2003 survey found that while 1 per cent of males and 1.8 per cent of females talk to professionals about mental health concerns, an overwhelming number– 44.7 per cent and 59.5 per cent of males and females respectively– talk to friends, family, or other adults when they are struggling.

The Community Helpers program is a unique model for supporting those with mental health concerns, as its focus is not on creating volunteers and supports, but rather on empowering those “natural helpers” who are already in situations where they are resources for youth.

The program aims to increase the ability of a community to identify and address health issues regarding promotion of youth mental health, reduce mental illness stigma, improve interventions for those at risk of suicide, and bridge the gap between formal and informal support.

The program is designed to find natural helpers through an anonymous survey distributed to youth aged 17-28. The survey asks youth to identify two peers and two community members to whom they reach out for support. If a community member is identified by at least two youth, they are contacted and offered the opportunity to participate in a training session to increase their support skills and knowledge about mental health.

The response from university staff who have learned about the program has been very positive and many requested training prior to knowing if they’d been nominated as a helper.

The initial 14-module training session was held September 21-23 and consisted of teaching on topics ranging from relationships and stress to substance abuse and suicide prevention. Other modules advised on ethics, resources and dealing with crisis situations.

Jason Bowers and Sean Ryan, both residence life coordinators at the U of C residence buildings, were two of the training session attendees. Bowers said that in the past only two students have directly approached him about mental health difficulties– having to approach a student when concerns arise is much more common. He signed up for the training “to learn different strategies” and because he wanted to be up-to-date on what students need for crisis intervention and the resources offered in the broader Calgary community.

He states that the program “intrigued me because it was a government initiative and that was really different.”

Ryan has also dealt with multiple student health concerns before. He highly recommends the training to those offered the opportunity, calling it “phenomenal.” Referring to the role-playing work around approaching students, Ryan said “that practice is invaluable in learning to deal with the program in a real context.”

According to the U of C Community Helpers program coordinator Adriana Tulissi counsellors and staff at the Wellness Centre deal with complex issues every day, and “more help is needed upstream,” and this is where the new program comes in.

The Canadian Mental Health Association reports that around 20 per cent of adults will experience some form of mental illness throughout their lifetime– with over 28,000 students, this means that more than 5,600 students at the U of C will deal with a mental health problem at some point.

Despite these high numbers, however, students are unlikely to seek out help for their troubles.

At the U of C roughly 3,000 students visited the Wellness Centre last academic year.

The Wellness Centre offers individual and couples counselling to students dealing with academic, career, relationship, personal and other concerns. Under the Students’ Union health plan, all counselling is free to undergraduate students.

According to the associate director of the U of C Wellness Centre Ann Laverty, the most common concerns that students present to the centre include anxiety and stress, depression and relationship concerns.

“Programs like the Community Helpers program will make a big difference because a lot of what helps promote mental health are things that any member of our campus or community can do. So much of it is reaching out to people with compassion and civility and care and showing them that they make a difference. A big thing is reducing stigma . . . and encouraging people to talk about it,” said Tulissi.

Two of the major barriers to accessing treatment for mental health issues reported by students include the stigma still surrounding mental illness and worries that their problems are not serious enough to warrant help or concern.

Although the myth is that successful students don’t need counselling, Laverty said “no one is immune to [mental health problems] and we all need some support and strategies along the way.”

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