Top dog at the Mount

Oscar and Marriam Abou-El-Haj visit Kenney Fitzpatrick of the Mount’s student union, who says more students are seeking help to deal with mental health issues. Photo: Elizabeth Whitten
Oscar and Marriam Abou-El-Haj visit Kenney Fitzpatrick of the Mount’s student union, who says more students are seeking help to deal with mental health issues. Photo: Elizabeth Whitten

When Mount Saint Vincent University psychologist Marriam Abou-El-Haj went to information fairs, she noticed that students were avoiding catching her eye.

She saw a change when she introduced Oscar.

“Then [students] come over and they’re like, ‘What’s this?’” she says. “I think the more informal it is, the more user-friendly for students, so they feel less intimidated. So that’s what he’s helped with.”

The Mount’s Wellness Centre will have employed Oscar for three years this February, and he’s no ordinary employee. Oscar is a therapy dog and holds office hours every Thursday.

Oscar is a part of an initiative by Abou-El-Haj to get more students to seek help for mental health issues.

She took the therapy dog program offered by St. John’s Ambulance to handle Oscar, who belongs to her neighbour.

Oscar’s a fluffy Shih Tzu with an excellent temperament, an ideal quality in a therapy dog. He turned five on Halloween.

Oscar is a curious little guy, or “piglet,” as Abou-El-Haj likes to call him. Part of his appeal is that he is hypoallergenic, with hair instead of fur.

MSVU psychologist Marriam Abou-El-Haj snuggles Oscar, the university’s therapy dog. Photo: Elizabeth Whitten
MSVU psychologist Marriam Abou-El-Haj snuggles Oscar, the university’s therapy dog. Photo: Elizabeth Whitten

Every Thursday Oscar has scheduled therapy appointments with students and Abou-El-Haj. It’s like any other session, but with the client holding Oscar.

He can be found at the Rosaria Student Centre for the “Puppy Power Hour” from 2 to 3 p.m. Abou-El-Haj and Oscar hang out there for an hour while students take turns snuggling with Oscar.

Oscar is a part of an effort to de-stigmatize counseling and to encourage students to seek help. According to a World Health Organization report from 2001, stigma is the greatest hurdles people face when seeking out counseling for a mental health issue.

Zoe Bordeleau-Cass, a community leader with Dalhousie Student Health Promotion. says students attending university for the first time are vulnerable to mental health problems. They are transitioning to university life while cut off from their normal support network.

Students have plenty of reasons to feel overwhelmed. They are taking on more debt with the soaring cost of tuition. According to a story from CTV, students know that their expensive education could fail to secure them jobs when they graduate.

Four years ago, Kenney Fitzpatrick, the general manager of the Mount’s student union, started to notice an increase in students looking for help. He argues that universities should take a holistic approach to student health.

“It’s not about there’s something wrong with you,” Fitzpatrick says. “It’s about the fact that you’d go to the doctor for a checkup, the dentist for a checkup, the optometrist for a checkup. You should also be doing mental checkups. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong, you might just need to get something off your chest.”

Abou-El-Haj hopes that introducing measures that reduce the negative association around mental health will encourage more students to look for support. More visibility and getting people to talk about mental health issues is necessary.

Oscar is just one part of the Mount’s attempt to de-stigmatize mental illness, and the cutest.

“People aren’t afraid to go see him,” says Amy Spurrell, a third-year public relations student, “and yeah, I think it definitely has worked.”