In January 2016, the Faculty of Arts announced the groundbreaking research of psychologist Nancy Galambos and sociologist Harvey Krahn, which countered established beliefs about the trajectory of happiness within a person’s lifespan. This became part of a larger faculty campaign known as Happiness Month, which we revisit this January with a new focus: student mental health.
According to the 2015 University of Alberta Student Mental Health report, 36.6 per cent of students have felt so depressed it was difficult to function, 54.7 per cent felt overwhelming anxiety and 8 per cent had seriously considered suicide. These are sobering statistics, but not surprising, says Faculty of Arts psychologist Suman Varghese, one of four “satellite” psychologists with Counselling and Clinical Services.
“University can be hard,” Varghese says. “Not only are you dealing with exams and academic pressure, but developmentally, there’s this whole mix of stress that may be brand new for people – like moving out, relationships and financial stressors.”
Faculty-based psychologists are part of an initiative by UAlberta’s Health and Wellness Services to bring mental health supports directly to students. This was initiated, in part for convenience, but also in order to remove the stigma students may feel about accessing their services. Varghese also has an educational role, and often helps faculty and staff identify and support students in distress.
According to Varghese, students in distress are typically experiencing one of three issues: anxiety, depression or social/relationship problems. Stressors such as exams can exacerbate pre-existing conditions or make it difficult to regulate emotions. Although individual or group counselling is often prescribed, Varghese notes that sometimes all that is required is information, reassurance or referrals to other student-focused services such as the Peer Support Centre, the Sexual Assault Centre or the Landing (a non-profit service that offers support for gender and sexual diversity).
Taking the broader view, in terms of overall mental health, prevention is the key.
“From that standpoint,” says Varghese, “how to do we help everyone on campus? It’s the idea of resilience – adapting in the face of adversity and bouncing back after setbacks. If we can help foster resilience in students before they’re under high stress or in a crisis situation, they are more protected, and one of the ways of doing that is encouraging self-care: sleep, diet, exercise and social connection. These are key things in terms of our well-being.”
Initially, Varghese was drawn to psychology because it represented a good balance between arts and science. But now, she views her work as a therapist as a proactive and positive response to the suffering she witnessed around her, which she continues to witness. “It’s difficult work in the sense that it can be pretty heavy. On the flip side, being able to help someone through that, and help them figure out what they need in those moments – it’s super rewarding. It makes it a really satisfying job and profession. It is challenging, because students are facing a lot of pressure. It’s a hard time in life for a lot of people. Those are the challenges, but the good parts definitely outweigh that.”
Varghese recommends that students – and indeed everyone – “check in with themselves” regularly, adding that the pillars of self-care are a good starting point. Faculty and staff also have an important role to play, as does the larger community.
“It’s not going to be 10 psychologists in a clinic that will fix our mental health problems,” she says. “Simple things like what to do if a student is in distress, or even providing a smile to student, remembering their name. Even having dogs on campus [for therapy dog sessions] – it’s such a simple thing to do, but it represents the broader community response in helping students deal with stress. These are little things, but they can really make a difference in how a student feels cared about or appreciated, and that goes a long way to feeling connected.”
As part of Happiness Month 2017, we are encouraging our Faculty of Arts community, near and far, to share what makes them happy this January by tweeting to our @UofA_Arts account using the hashtag #HAPPYJAN, a selfie to our Instagram account @UAlberta_Arts, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Watch for the collected happiness wisdom of our Arts community in the coming days.
For initial consultations and related mental health services, please contact Counselling and Clinical Services.