U of T raises awareness for mental health

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Monday October 17, 2011

The Varsity

MIAW encourages conversation among students to overcome mental illness

Dwayne G. White

Inspired by a national public education campaign, Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW) at U of T took place October 2–9.

Originally begun to raise awareness around mental illness, its prevalence on campus, and the stigma around mental health, the program has achieved such great success that the university has declared October Mental Illness Awareness Month (MIAM) on campus.

“For several years now, we have broadened that focus to include an emphasis on the importance of positive mental health, and to expand our programming beyond the first week to the full month of October,” said Judy Vorderbrugge, Community Health Coordinator at U of T’s health promotion programs.

“According to a 2009 survey, 36 per cent of U of T students report that stress negatively impacts their academic performance, 25 per cent say that anxiety has had the same impact, and 15 per cent say that depression has negatively impacted their academics,” Vorderbrugge said.

While members of certain ethnicities and genders are not specifically prone to this illness, common stressors have been identified in the student population.

Psychology professor Dax Urbszat noted that “there are common stressors that many students will experience to some degree, such as new autonomy and independence,” which greatly affect academic performance. According to Urbszat students tend to demonstrate these difficulties through missed tests, self-handicapping (providing an excuse for failure) and procrastination.

However, Urbszat said that speaking about one’s mental health can be the first step towards recovery.

“Talking about it needs to be something that is okay. We must strip away this idea of stigma,” said Urbszat. “To overcome stigmatization is first to educate people so that they can understand. Second is for people who suffer from mental illness to overcome their fear of sharing this information.”

MIAW and MIAM are the catalysts for this dialogue at U of T.

“Events like these are really about trying to start the conversation and to get people talking about the issues. I think that this event did that in the short term, [now] the challenge is to find a way to sustain the conversation,” Vorderbrugge said.

Many students agree that the conversation surrounding this issue is important. Recent graduate Asante Haughton, who experienced depression during his early adult years, said that confiding in a close friend or family member and trying to seek professional help is the best way to address mental illness.

“The sooner people get treated during their earlier experience the better chance they have to be depression free for the rest of their life,”said Karen Liberman, former Executive Director of the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario.

“People who have depression in their adulthood are more likely to suffer economically and are less likely to be able to stay at work productively over periods of time,” she added. U of T provides on-campus services to help students treat these illness.

“There are services on campus such as Accessibility Services and Counselling and Psychological Services that can help,” said Erin H., a psychology major and student now in recovery from an illness.