Relief line aims to reduce stigma

Red River College launches online mental health platform for students


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 “Are you OK?”

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/08/2017 (1992 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

 “Are you OK?”

Sitting in class one day last year, Abbigail Guse said she couldn’t admit to her instructor that she wasn’t OK — she was juggling college, work, relationships and struggling with anxiety and depression.

“I felt like I couldn’t say, “I’m not sick, but I’m considering throwing myself in front of a bus today.”

JUSTIN SAMANSKI-LANGILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Health co-ordinator Breanna Sawatzky hopes the new digital platform will help.

She felt alone and once attempted suicide that year.

About 1,300 Red River College (RRC) students accessed counselling and accessibility services last year, with over 200 struggling with suicidal thoughts.

With Guse as an example, it’s possible there were more students suffering in silence.

But when RRC students resume classes in a few weeks, they’ll have a resource that Guse didn’t, and it’s one that mental health co-ordinator Breanna Sawatzky hopes caters to the digital generation.

Red River Relief Line is a 24/7 online platform for students to talk about mental health issues anonymously with trained peer listeners.

Despite being known as the “oversharing” generation, students today often hide their symptoms of mental illness, said Sawatzky, adding “there’s still a lot of really negative attitudes toward mental health problems, where they’re seen as an internal character weakness of a person.”

In line with apps like Uber and Skip the Dishes, Red River Relief Line creates quality assurance with a rating system that allows the user to rate the listener.

One risk about the relief line that Sawatzky acknowledged is that peer listeners are not monitored to ensure they follow the strict rule to listen to students’ problems — but to never give advice.

The one-year pilot project launched last March, just before classes wrapped up for summer, so this year it will truly be put to the test.

The online resource is a more realistic option for Guse, who said she’s not comfortable talking to a school counselor or using a phone hotline.

“Being able to do it when it’s 3 a.m. and I can’t sleep and I’m cramming on projects, is important because that’s when people potentially feel the most overwhelmed.”

Guse found the relief line on Mind it!, a website launched back in 2014 by an RRC student that features blog posts, information and other mental health resources.

After that student graduated, the website went quiet until Sawatzky picked up the torch last October.

Mind it! and the relief line are part of the college’s “re-energized” mental health strategy called Healthy Minds Healthy College.

“We know that each year, one in five Canadians will experience mental illness, and we want to make sure that those in our community are able to notice when they might need to get treatment or get help,” Sawatzky said.

That statistic doesn’t just apply to students, and neither does the college’s push for better mental health on campus.

This year, 120 managers at the college will receive workplace mental health education to better understand how employees with mental illness are accommodated and learn techniques for boosting personal mental health, among other goals.

“We do hope that the increased education awareness and stigma reduction will also influence how people work with students,” Sawatzky said.

In yet another new project, the college will plan activities for Mental Illness Awareness Week for the first time ever.

The added efforts may seem justified when some data suggests students’ mental health is worsening.

Over 600 RRC students identified mental health as their primary reason to seek counselling last year, up 40 per cent from three years ago.

On a larger scale, the 2016 National College Health Assessment found that eight per cent fewer students than in 2013 said their health was very good or excellent.

Of all 44,000 post-secondary students surveyed, one fifth reported to be in distress, according to the data from the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services.

About 18 per cent reported having been diagnosed or treated for anxiety in the last year. 

Guse is among that 18 per cent, but believes the grim numbers might be thanks to efforts institutions like Red River College that encourage students to speak out.

“It’s not as taboo as it used to be, you aren’t going to get shipped off to a looney bin just because you want to talk to somebody.”

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