One of the biggest obstacles to strong mental health is the overwhelming sense of loneliness felt by our university and college-aged students. As I mentioned in the previous instalments of this 3-part blog series, while our students are more “connected” to the world via social media and their mobile devices, these same students are feeling crippling loneliness and a general lack of coping skills in their lives, as they often have not developed an identity separate from their parents or a strong sense of independence.
Chris Hadfield, Canadian astronaut and now-celebrity is always asked if he was lonely in space. His response was that you can be hundreds of thousands miles away from Earth and feel connected to people and the universe, and, at the same time, you can also be living in the centre of a metropolitan city and feel like the loneliest person in the world. A myth endures, which allows us to assume university and college students living away from home could never be lonely in dorms with thousands of other students “partying” all the time. However, they could very well be the loneliest people on Earth.
As parents, teachers, counsellors, siblings and peers of this demographic, what can we do to better support our students? We are beginning to understand the prevalence of mental health issues in Canada and how our current resources are exhausted from the increased demand. It could take years for the health care system to implement a structure that places mental health as a higher priority, so what are the steps we can take at a grassroots level to help students and the greater community now?
Below, you will find a list of collaborations and ideas that are already being set in motion by influential Canadian industries. And you might ask yourself, how can I, as one person, make any sort of impact? Like anything, if you look to hard at the big picture, beginning the process of finding a solution can seem too overwhelming. So I’ve included ways you can support these overarching goals in your community, your workplace or even in your home.
Collaboration: Recently, the Mental Health Commission of Canada embarked on a two-day conference with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police because, more and more the police force has become first responders in mental health crises. This partnership speaks to the new understanding that working together is the only way to move forward when a problem has as many touch points in society as mental health does.
In your own environments, encourage similar collaboration with mental health as your frame of reference. This can be achieved in different ways, from a professor-student-staff initiative within the university setting or organizing representatives from various departments in your workplace to avoid working in silos.
Education: The ultimate purpose of collaboration is to educate one another and to share resources. Every Canadian stakeholder is focused on the goal to improve the accessibility and support of those who suffer from mental health issues, from the health industry, to the government, to the education system. Each has valuable information to share and ways to support people suffering from mental illness.
Seek education on how to engage someone with a mental illness, learn to look for warning signs and changes and encourage others to do the same. We are often afraid of what we don’t understand, which is why we might feel like we wouldn’t know how to address someone who is suffering. With education behind you, you can feel confident in supporting someone through a difficult time.
Connectedness: A sense of belonging and a strong personal network are tools that help people with mental health issues feel less alone in their situation. As a society, we value individualism and privacy, but perhaps the pursuit of these ideas have moved us too far away from the strength gained from an environment based on community values. Universities and colleges have placed a greater focus on connecting students with their peers, providing forums to reach out in and raising awareness of the resources that are available.
Engage in conversation with people in your life and seek to understand their perspective. Find ways to stay present in face-to-face experiences, despite the temptation to “connect” via your devices and various social networks. Learn to notice small changes in behaviour, attitude and performance in those around you and don’t be afraid to ask someone how they are doing. You might be the only person who has shown them that kind of care in a while.
How else can we support our students as they learn to cope with the pressures of university? Where do you think the changes need to begin – At the top with governments and health care, or at the bottom within our homes, schools and communities, or both? I look forward to your comments below!