NSCAD group puts ‘a face on mental health’

NSCAD’s Mental Health Working Group lets students talk about mental health with others with first-hand experience.

People who have lived with mental health issues meet at support groups to vent and relate. (Photo: Ben DuPlessis)
People who have lived with mental health issues meet at support groups to vent and relate. (Photo: Ben DuPlessis)

If you’re having mental health issues but you’re hesitant to approach a professional for help, consider peer support groups — places where people who understand meet to unwind and relate.

Bill Travis, NSCAD’s disability resource facilitator, meets with students in the NSCAD Mental Health Working Group to organize events and gatherings, all in the name of supporting each other.

It’s a network of students who empathize, who’ve been through the same things — a more human adjunct to counselling or a psychologist’s office. Travis says students find it helpful to “hear from a student who’s actually made that step before” — seeking a diagnosis for the first time.

Hearing from people who really know mental illness from experience is different and more approachable than just hearing people speak about mental illness, he says.

A huge part of the struggle, says Travis, is thinking you’re alone. The numbers say otherwise: the Canadian Mental Health Association says one in every five Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime.

A 2013 American College Health Association survey of 153 post-secondary American colleges found that 51.3 per cent of students had “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the last year, while 31.8 per cent had “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.” Eight per cent had “seriously considered suicide.”

Peer support groups can help warm people to the idea of approaching a professional, which some people find cold or intimidating.

Counsellors and psychologists are “looking for a diagnosis, they’re looking to sum you up,” says Travis. The effect can be alienating.

Bill Travis wants NSCAD staff trained in mental health first aid, safe techniques for talking to struggling students. (Photo: Ben DuPlessis)
The NSCAD peer support group wants school staff trained in mental health first aid, safe techniques for talking to struggling students. (Photo: Ben DuPlessis)

NSCAD’s peer support group started three years ago, when some senior students wanted a place to open up about teachers and staff at NSCAD. Predominantly coffee drinkers, they started the Mental Health Coffee Hour, says Travis. It eventually grew into the working group, providing a safe place for more discussions of mental health from first voices.

Gathering for drinks is still one of the more popular events planned by the working group, though they’ve dropped coffee for tea. Travis doesn’t go, saying that would violate the students-only vibe, but he hears about ideas and discussions from the attendees afterward, as well as putting any changes into effect at the school.

Travis says the group “puts a face on mental health and NSCAD” so students know they aren’t alone, that other students deal with issues of mental health. It’s real, normal and not an isolated abstraction.

James Pottie, co-coordinator of a similar peer support group at the University of King’s College, says, “The best benefit to these support groups is seeing people your own age, on your level, going through the same thing.”

The King’s Mental Health Awareness Collective meets every other Saturday with snacks. Pottie says everyone who comes is equal.

Pottie first went to a meeting last March after realizing he needed help with personal mental health. He was immediately drawn into the welcoming environment. He enjoyed the group so much he took on an administrative role this year, and says he’s “heard some of the most heartfelt things.”

“Sometimes it’s not up to you, it up to your brain chemistry.”

Apart from the meetings, the King’s collective also hosts public events to raise awareness. Last semester the group held a public “de-stressing” day, which featured activities, like hitting a punching bag, to minimize stress.

Pottie says they are hoping to run a similar event this semester.

Here’s a list of some peer support groups in the Halifax area, some affiliated with universities, some not: