Occasionally, like most of us I’m sure, I rail at the seeming impossibility of the path I’ve chosen. I struggle with maintaining my professional, personal, and academic obligations and to be honest, I’m not sure how successfully I manage it. Some days (like today) as I stare at a blank word document, fighting the rising sense of panic at the fact that I have a paper due in less than a week, I wonder if it’s really worth it. I was happily immersed in a job that I loved. I had a social life. My condo was clean. I ate more than eggs or peanut butter every night. I wasn’t always so tired and moody. Well OK – that part is probably a lie – I’ve always been moody. But I think I used to be more pleasant about it.
I’ve had some pretty dark thoughts in the past year, and it’s often a challenge to either remember that I’m really not alone in all this, or that what I’m doing is a choice. So when I was recently asked to join the group working on the new campus mental health initiative I was both happy to be involved with such a venture, and apprehensive about what I would be able to contribute – partially because I was concerned that it might hit a bit too close to home.
At a meeting this past fall, the Director of Admissions told about a student from the previous year that no one had heard from in quite a while. Her parents eventually phoned the University looking for her, and it was discovered that she had isolated herself in her residence for weeks with no contact with faculty, staff or fellow students. Sadly, all of us realized that this kind of incidence wasn’t unique in University campuses around the world. Like many of our life journeys, University comes with its joys and triumphs, but is often also balanced by pressures and failures which have the potential to lead to despair.
How could we address such a growing, but important concern? We discussed the concept of a central repository for information and concerns about students – and struggled with the idea of privacy rights, slander and alarmism. What resulted was a call to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority and the creation of a specific task force on the topic. The long-term plan includes offering a Mental Health First Aid certificate to everyone on campus: faculty, staff and students, as well as establishing a concrete strategy to consolidate potential concerns about all members of the campus community in a sensitive and functional way.
This is not an easy task, and the group is only in its infancy. Much of the talk around the table has centred on how to respond to students who are obviously acting out. One issue is that it has the potential to focus on the punitive. Another concern was that this would only address a portion of those on campus who could benefit from some care and attention. We are a campus community and I believe that we need to show care to everyone – not just the large group of undergraduate students who are the easiest to target. What about the faculty who are struggling with the publish-or-perish-syndrome? What about the overworked Student Services staff who seem to be taking stress leaves with alarming regularity?
I don’t actually know the best solution to this issue as there are so many factors that must be considered. When does this “care and concern” constitute an invasion of privacy? Do we have the potential to cause damage with our actions? We are a teaching institution – at what point does our attentiveness over-step boundaries into an area that has nothing to do with the mandate of the Academy? Is the phrase “mental health initiative” potentially inflammatory or exclusive?
What is gratifying to note though, is the genuine concern of the individuals around the table. Not one person on this committee is there merely because they are obligated to because of their role. Each member has a sincere wish to improve the well-being of every member of the campus community -which is a positive first step.
Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada
Deanna England is a member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.