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First student-run mental health conference confronts stigma

McGill’s first student-run conference on mental health took place last Saturday and featured guest speakers, discussions, and workshops aimed at addressing the impact and stigma of mental health, as well as discussing possible solutions to these problems at McGill. Named “Students in Mind 2013,” the day-long event was attended to full capacity, with 120 members of the McGill community present.

According to Clara Lu, chair of the organizing committee, the conference was meant to provide a platform for discussion as well as to showcase the resources pertaining to mental health that are available at McGill.

“While in the past there have been substantial efforts by students to act on mental health, few until now have brought all of our diverse mental health resources together under one roof,” Lu wrote.

Lu said the planning of the event was unique, since the organizing committee is independent and completely student-run.

“We did encounter some initial difficulty gaining support, since we weren’t officially associated with the university or any established student group,” she wrote. “In the past few months, however, we’ve received overwhelming support from student health services, SSMU, PGSS, MFDS [McGill Food and Dining Services], and many other groups, all of which recognize the need for an effective conversation about mental health among the students they serve.”

Conference participants were provided with a package that explained the significance of mental health at academic institutions like McGill. Over the last two years, Mental Health Services at McGill has encountered a 25 per cent increase in cases they have handled.

Doctor Joseph Rochford, a professor in the department of psychiatry who spoke at the conference, said he views the increase in people seeking support as a societal trend rather than a phenomenon specific to McGill.

“I believe [the increase] has come from concentrated efforts through a number of institutions, [including] universities, hospitals, advocacy groups, even much of the mainstream media, to inform the public of what mental illness is, where it comes from, and what can be done for it,” Rochford wrote.

Sarah Berry, a PhD student and research associate for the Opening Minds Anti-Stigma Initiative of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, offered an analysis of the social and economic stressors that students face, which may contribute to vulnerability to mental illnesses.

“The issues facing students are, as always, wide-ranging and complex,” Berry wrote. “However, students are undertaking post-secondary education at a particularly challenging juncture: high tuition costs paired with high loan interest rates, and relatively dire prospects in an increasingly competitive post-grad job market mean that financial stress is elevated [….] All of these stressors emerge at a time in one’s life when serious mental health issues are most likely to appear.”

According to Berry, the key to tackling mental health issues is to do so through student initiatives.

“Grassroots, peer-to-peer exchanges are the best way to start tackling stigma and to address both short- and long-term solutions to student mental health issues,” she said. “Ongoing dialogue will hopefully lead to more regular on-campus initiatives, and ultimately to a more supportive campus and learning environment.”

In addition to a wide range of speakers, the conference also included workshops designed to address personal mental health and peer support.

Marina Smailes, U1 Arts and Science, praised the conference as a student-run initiative.

“It’s really invaluable to have students running [the conference] because they know how to present it in a way that really makes it accessible to all students and can then bring in other more knowledgeable people to give more advice,” she said.

According to Lu, the committee aims to make Students in Mind an annual event.

“We hope to expand to maybe even 200 [attendees] in future years,” Lu said. “We’d like to even invite other campuses.”

Rochford said the conference had a positive impact, but he also stressed that it could be improved in the future.

“We know that education can reduce […] stigma, so this is why ‘Students in Mind’ events are so important.” Rochford said. “But if the only people who show up for these kinds of events are friends and family [of people with mental health illness], then we’ve only addressed a small part of the problem. We have to find ways to reach a broader audience—one that is bigger than just friends and family—so that we can get the message out most effectively.”

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