King’s group tackles mental illness with conversation

“Talking face-to-face, one-on-one, is always going to be the best form of communication,” says group leader.

Stephanie Duchon, 23, says she talks openly about having depression to increase awareness about mental illness. Photo: Leanne Janzen
Stephanie Duchon, 23, says she talks openly about having depression to increase awareness about mental illness. Photo: Leanne Janzen

“I am not my mental illness” is written next to a poster of a young woman on a bulletin board at the University of King’s College. Her name is Stephanie Duchon, one of the organizers of the King’s Mental Health Awareness Collective.

Started in 2010, the group meets on campus every second Saturday to give students who suffer from mental illness a chance to get together to talk. Three to six students usually attend and there are no counsellors or members of the faculty present.

“I needed a safe space where I could explode all my thoughts and feelings,” says Duchon, 23, in her fifth year of European studies. She’s from Hamilton, Ont. and started running the group last year with a former student.

Duchon says her journey with mental illness has been rough. At 10, she noticed something was wrong, but she was not diagnosed with depression until five years later. In her second year of university she realized the illness was not going away.

Rachael Bethune, 22, from Charlottetown, says she attends the group in addition to seeing a counsellor for anxiety.

“You know that you can say things there and no one will be like, ‘oh my God, I can’t believe you’re freaked out like that.’ They’ll be like, ‘oh yeah, yeah, I’ve been there,’” says Bethune, in her fifth year of a combined honours degree in early modern studies and German. She says they discuss issues such as school, how therapy is going, or if medications are effective.

Dr. Nina Woulff, a practicing clinical psychologist, says there are positive elements to self-directed support groups.  It is beneficial to know others who are going through similar experiences, to discuss mental health services, and to provide a scheduled social activity, she says.

But she adds there are some risks involved. Members of the group may not get the kind of support they need, and anxiety may become contagious.

She says she hopes each member of the group works with a mental health professional, as “people with mental illness are indeed a vulnerable population. They need protection as well as help.”

In a September issue of Maclean’s magazine, the cover article highlighted a recent study conducted by the University of Alberta that concluded about half of students surveyed felt things were hopeless.

Nicholas Hatt, dean of residence at King’s says more students with mental health issues are attending university because, in previous decades, “they (didn’t) have the extra supports available.” Students can access counselling through Dalhousie University, in addition to the support group at King’s, he says.

But for Duchon, change starts with a conversation.

“We can text, we can email, we can Facebook, but talking face-to-face, one-on-one, is always going to be the best form of communication,” she says. “It’s the one thing that I think is the most important.”