Staff, students talk mental health at joint forum

Melissa K. shares her story about mental illness at last week's Mental Health Innovation Forum.

Melissa K. shares her story about mental illness at last week’s Mental Health Innovation Forum.

It started with incapacitating headaches that would turn Melissa K.’s world upside down.

A visit to her family doctor to find out what was wrong would leave her shaken.

It was 2009 and K., who was attending college, was diagnosed with major depressive disorder. It explained the headaches, her feelings of loneliness, and the changes to her eating and sleeping patterns, but it did little else to help her at the time.

“I had a hard time accepting the diagnosis. I began to self harm and had thoughts of suicide,” K. told the crowd at last week’s Mental Health Innovation Forum in Pond Inlet.

After K. got her diagnosis, she lost her job, left school and “slept so much, hoping to escape the pain I was feeling; hoping I would wake up happy – or not at all.” She tried to take her own life.

She existed in a dark place with little support from the people in her life, who offered only platitudes or dismissed how she was feeling. She was fine, or simply being a drama queen, they told her.

But somewhere within her, a feeling persisted. It was hope.

Though its appearances would be fleeting during the next few years, the glimmers of it that she saw compelled her to prove she could be successful in spite of her mental health issues. She enrolled at Brock in 2010 and set her sights set on a degree in psychology.

After struggling to get through her first year, including attempting suicide for a second time, she worked up the courage to connect with a caseworker at Services for Students with Disabilities, a brave move that proved to be a turning point.

“I realized she just genuinely cared about me and wanted to see me succeed. I think this is when I accepted my diagnosis,” K. recalled.

There were still moments when she would be overcome and had to push herself out of a deep low. There were still thoughts of suicide, too. Still times when she would self harm.

And still thoughts of hope.

“I still hoped that I would pass and graduate and succeed,” K.said.

She did. Last year, she completed her four-year psychology degree. Today, she works as a teaching assistant and speaks regularly about her depression with the intent of educating people about living with mental health issues and prevailing.

K. took a deep breath and paused thoughtfully before launching into her story at Monday’s forum, the final workshop in a two-year joint initiative with Niagara College, Pathstone Mental Health and the Canadian Mental Health Association aimed at addressing mental health challenges faced by post-secondary students.

Called More Feet on the Ground, the initiative’s goal is to train faculty, staff and students how to recognize, respond to and refer to treatment those university and college students who are experiencing struggles with mental health. Funding is provided by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.

The approach includes an online training tool that has been used so far by 635 people at Brock, Niagara College and elsewhere.

History professor Mike Driedger is one of them. The training has given him greater understanding of the student experience he said.

“It’s really important for us as educators because we see a large sea of students in the classroom that we’d like to get to know but can’t,” Driedger explained.

But he noted faculty are there to support students and that includes being able to recognize when things are not right, responding accordingly and referring students to help.

“When we’re in our complicated role as educators, it’s really helpful to have that straightforward recognize, respond, refer tool to know what to do and if we don’t, our job is made easier by this large network (of people who can help) that keeps growing,” he said.

The more who do recognize when someone is struggling, and talk openly and sensitively about it, the better, K.noted.

“Contrary to the stigma, mental health (issues) are not a sign of weakness that we should silence,” she said. “Let’s engage in the transformative powers of talk and never stop.”

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