This article was written in collaboration with four other post-secondary students. As written in part one, please read the following with and open mind and heart.
If you have read part one of this blog series, or if you are acquainted with at least one person who is struggling with his or her mental health, you know that it can be difficult to manage. Support and understanding are two of the best ways to help end the stigma of mental health. That is why I’ve teamed up with four other post-secondary students to bring you part two of this blog series. The goal of this article is to teach you and your post-secondary institutions what to do to help support students who have depression.
How You and Your University Can Help Students Overcoming Depression
Other students at SFU can support those of us who are suffering by openly talking about it, instead of having it being a forbidden topic. The more other people talk about it, the easier it is for those who are depressed to share their experiences and reach out for help. I think it would also be helpful if SFU organized a club of students who have either suffered in the past, or are currently suffering from depression, so that those students have a support network.
- Kendra Wragg, 4th year student at Simon Fraser University
Author’s note: There is a club at SFU called Pursuit of Happiness, where its executive team hosts workshops and events to help students overcome stress and anxiety while making new friends.
University campuses have been putting in efforts to increase awareness around mental illness, which is great. But it does not stop at free tea and puppies. Dig deeper. Talk about burnout. Talk about failing courses. Talk about shame and vulnerability. Talk about the different intersections of mental health such as culture and sexuality.
For university faculty, staff and student leaders, don't stop at awareness. Keep going. What is the root cause of all of this? Why does university exacerbate mental illness? It's the unnecessary academic competition. The rigid academic structure. Lack of funding for services. Financial debt. Think about how higher education institutions can improve systems to make education more accessible and flexible for everyone. Then take active, massive, supportive AND preventive action.
I really do think that the stigma around depression relates to people’s thoughts that individuals with depression are somehow weaker than individuals without it. It's true that everyone deals with different stressors in different degrees, but depression runs a lot deeper than that. It's not an easy thing to explain to someone who has never experienced it, but people with depression can be low mood and low energy even when they seem the happiest - and every stressor on top of that compounds and compounds, taking that low point and making it lower. I think students should try to understand that everyone's normal is at a different point on the "happy scale"; it's not that people with depression cannot deal with their stress as well as others, it's just that they start the race further back from the finish line than people who don't have it.
There are a lot of different kinds of depression, of course, but I think suicide is a major thing that we need to try to talk about and understand. I'm not going to lie, I am very suicidal, and I think we need to raise awareness, but also reduce stigma, around suicide itself but also suicide prevention. Resources to understand and deal with suicide need to be more readily available. People need to be more willing to talk about it. As it is right now, just the word itself makes most people feel uncomfortable - which is totally understandable, because it's a very heavy topic! But the only way to help people dealing with suicidal thoughts and tendencies is to talk about it and deal with it, and we, collectively, need to be able to move in a direction where that is okay.
To my friends: If I refuse to come out on the basis of 'I’m tired and I just want to stay home,' sometimes all I need is just a little bit of company to force me out of my depressive shell. I want my friends to understand that when I’m depressed, I have no motivation for life, and living alone means an unhealthy amount of self-reflection of self-deprecation. Please just come to my house and keep me company, which often times will force me out of my head and to focus more on my environment. That always helps with my depression (when I’m not as focused on myself and my thoughts).
To other students: Please be nice and considerate of others. That weird kid that you guys always joke and laugh about? He might’ve been bullied as a child, and has a quirky behaviour now because of his circumstances. That girl who’s always smiling and always seems so cheerful? She could very well be battling with depression and self-harm behind closed doors. Depression comes in all shapes and forms, and just because someone doesn’t look like the textbook definition of depression, doesn’t mean they’re not experiencing it.
To SFU: please advertise and promote the health services provided for students with mental health issues. Throughout my five years at SFU, I had never known about the medical clinic at SFU staffed with counsellors and psychiatrists. Depression demotivates people into doing nothing more than they have to, so expecting depressed students to do their own research and to reach out for help is not very effective. Talk about the health services in class, so that those who want help know where to go.
Empathy (not sympathy) is one of the greatest gifts you can provide to someone who is overcoming mental illness. Staying with them and actively trying to understand what they are going through can help you relate with them on a deeper level. This will help said person feel supported, and that support can mean a lot to someone struggling with their mental health.
Another reason why empathy is important is because if you’ve never had depression or any other mental illness, you would never know how it feels. However, never take on a therapist role when chatting with someone overcoming mental health issues, as you may begin to make yourself feel down, and you may provide the person with false information.
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