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Mental Health Initiative is now a registered practicum placement

The University of Ottawa student-led mental health literacy group, Initiative 1/5, has gone online and public with their latest workshop ‘Making the Best of Stress’ on Sept 29.

“Coming to university is a huge transition,” said 1/5 president Kari-Ann Clow. “Mental illness tends to often have its first episodes in young adults. They’re changing, they might be away from family, there is a new identity-forming, so there’s a lot of pressure on top of the stigma associated.”

The group promotes themselves as students advocating for psychological well-being and mental health literacy at the U of O and regional community. As a group of volunteers, Clow said they use an evidence-based approach, where everything is approved by licenced psychologists.

Clow also explained that the initiative’s name refers to the statistic that one in five people in Canada will personally experience a mental health problem or illness.

“It’s hard to know where to go and what’s available,” she said, now in her fifth year of a PhD in clinical psychology at U of O. “Sometimes we can feel very isolated or feel like ‘I’m the only one’.’’

“Those feelings come from a place of not having a lot of information, not feeling comfortable to share or knowing that other people are experiencing those things as well.”

The Initiative was co-created in 2015 by Nathalie Freynet, at the time during her PhD in clinical psychology in the PhD program, and Shawn Katuwapitiya, at the time a psychiatry resident.

“I wished I could have accessed [education around mental health] much earlier,” said Freynet, now at the Ottawa Institute of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. “In speaking with friends and colleagues about it, it became apparent that it wasn’t just my impression. There really appeared to be a lack of resources to help educate and orient students about these topics.”

Since then, they have developed and delivered workshops including garden therapy, pre-exam, and holiday stress management, as well as developed educational tools, materials, and online resources. One of the toolkits includes their BOOST kits (available in English and French) which includes a booklet of possible stress-related emotions and symptoms, a stress ball, tea, and eye mask. 

Their most recent workshop made public online ‘Making the Best of Stress,’ was co-led by third-year clinical psychology student Traleena Rouleau and Lori Cohan, a fourth-year clinical psychology doctorate in the School of Psychology. 

With 39 attendees over the registered and free Zoom presentation, focused on breathing and grounding techniques and goal and time management. They provided a free workbook to download and follow along as well as engagement as using polls and asking questions.

“We are here to provide you tools on how to bring order to the chaos,” said Cohan at the beginning of the workshop. 

“We want to empower individuals. We want to give individuals, the skills, strategies, and the ability to recognize that it’s okay to need support,” said Clow. “In our stress workshop we go through slides of what red flags look like, how can you recognize them, before you get to a point where you’re like, ‘I can’t function, I need help’.”

Since March, Clow said they have been offering online webinars due to the pandemic and have worked on building more partnerships. She said they have received a large influx of bookings for workshops and that her facilitators are very busy.

“There’s certainly a lot of barriers right now,” said Clow, who also has experience working in shelters and for those affected by human trafficking. “Just look at our long psychology wait-lists.”

“We certainly need more opportunities to learn about mental health, both to reduce stigma and shame around mental illness, but also to promote mental health.” 

She said the shift needs to stop just being reactive but rather proactive and preventative in making mental health literacy part of everyday life. In other words, not until someone hits rock bottom. 

“It takes a lot of bravery and strength sometimes to get to a point of saying, ‘I need help, I need support’.”

She refers to the incident early in the months as University of Ottawa Health Services phone lines being done for weeks. “That’s very scary…you spend time working and building up the courage to say ‘Okay, I’m going to ask for help, I’m going to get support,’ and then that happens, it can feel like a rejection.”

“It’s really increasing the conversation so to reduce that isolation because especially with COVID-19 now, I think that isolation is even to add a new level that I don’t think we were ever expecting,” she said.

Within the workshop, Rouleau continued with tangible, sensory focused grounding exercises and offered a list of supports for students. This included observing five things around you, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. She also suggested students create various SMART Goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely) to help focus on time-management and reduce stress.

“It’s not so much about finding the ‘right’ or ‘perfect’ mental health support,” Cohan said in an interview with the Fulcrum. “It’s at least try something.”

Cohan said the initiative has also been discussing the priority of making professors and faculty members more aware of mental health issues. 

“We need to be more sensitive, caring and compassionate,” she said. “We all need to learn at our own pace,” she said. “As long as we can reduce stigma, we can help engage in better healthy behaviour.”

“It appears that there is a movement towards more open and honest conversations about mental health on campus both between students and the administration,” added Freynet. “But much still remains to be done.” 

“It would be great if students could have access to more benefits for mental health services so that they can have the freedom to access services anywhere, not just on campus.”

Clow said in November they will be training new members and in December the plan is to have another public event.

If you are in urgent need of help and at risk of harm to yourself or someone else, please contact a crisis line, 911 or go to the Emergency Room. Here is a non-comprehensive list of local mental health resources…

  • University of Ottawa Health Services (UOHS), 100 Marie-Curie Private
    • Offers counselling, psychiatric services, individual, couple or family therapy, access to psycho-educational groups and referrals to specialists off-campus
  • Student Academic Success Service (SASS), 100 Marie-Curie Private
    • Offers individual counselling, peer-counselling, workshops, online therapy and group counselling using new stepped model; referrals
  • Faculty mentoring centres (locations differ by faculty)
    • Specialized mentoring services catered to the needs of students in each faculty