Post-secondary schools work to create healthy campuses

Jodi Schellenberg
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A small research project has shown educators what is important to students.

On Thursday, the University of Saskatchewan, SIAST and the First Nations University held a presentation at the E.A. Rawlinson Centre to celebrate the end of a four-year research project.

“What we have been doing for the last four … is looking at the smaller rural campuses to see how healthy they are and see what we can do working with the students,” June Anonson from the U of S College of Nursing said.

The students lead the project, identifying what makes a healthy campus and what could be done on their campuses to make them healthier.

“With participatory action research what you do is ask the population what is you need, what is it you want,” Anonson explained. “Through questionnaires, through focus groups, through town hall meetings and a variety of means we found with students the things that would bother them the most on their campuses that contributed to their campuses not being healthy

“The three of the top things were difficulty with communities working together, so some discrimination, issues with mental health, so things like depression, stress and anxiety and the third thing was a feeling of students just not belonging and feeling like they were appreciated or made a difference,” she added. “We wanted students to realize they are our leaders now and our leaders of the future.”

The three guest speakers were La Ronge mayor Thomas Sierzycki, regional executive director of Mental Health and Addiction Services for PAPHR Brett Enns and director of Student Success Services for the First Nations University Grace McLeod.

The guest speakers were brought in to remind students that there are still issues on their campuses and to ask them to think about what they can do to make a difference.

“It was completely driven by students saying these are some of the things we need to work on in our campuses,” Anonson said. “This has been four years of work so we are … so today is one of the biggest celebrations of the project.”

The first speaker, Sierzycki, said he has faced a lot of challenges in his life and was happy to share his experiences with the students.

“The reason I got involved in politics is being from a small community, you want to see change and I thought what is the best way to get there?” Sierzycki said.

When he saw there was an opportunity to run for council when he was 18 he decided to go for it. Three years later, he decided to run for mayor and was elected.

While he was on council, his mother passed away and his father was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but emotional challenges were not all he faced.

“The north is a great place but it is full of jurisdictional chaos,” Sierzycki said. “To get through that chaos you need to work together and sometimes discrimination will come out.”

He said it is important to work with the close communities, taking their concerns into consideration when making decisions.

“However, if you take a step back and realize if you work together chances are you are forgetting something you didn’t think about or there are ways to solve your problems or issues that you otherwise would not be able to solve yourself,” Sierzycki said.

It is also important to not look at people as certain races or cultures, but just as the people you are serving.

“You are elected to serve all your constituents,” Sierzycki said. “When you look at constituents you don’t think of First Nations, white, Chinese, you look at them as a group and in order to move forward we need to work together.”

One of the best pieces of knowledge Sierzycki said he could pass on is to celebrate everything.

“Any small little thing that happens is a good thing,” Sierzycki said. “Some people will say, ‘That’s just a little thing, don’t worry about it.’ Those little things are really the building blocks of moving forward. No matter how small the success is, celebrate it, cherish it and it will grow into other success.”

After Sierzycki, Enns spoke to the students about the challenges of mental health and why it is important.

“For me, life is really like a treadmill and if you think of the treadmill as society, society has expectations and it tells us about how we should act and how we should react,” Enns said. “We have hopes and dreams.”

All of these factors contribute to your life, he added.

“For the most part, folks are able to handle what comes at them in life,” Enns said. “Their treadmill path, they are on sync with it -- it is not too fast and it is not too slow, it is just right.

“They are able to realize potential and deal with normal stresses in life and they work productively and deal with what happens,” Enns said.

Not everyone is able to deal with life as it comes at him or her though, Enns said.

“There is one in five who suffer from what we call a mental disorder,” Enns said. “I’m one in five. I’ve suffered with depression many years of my life and went undiagnosed for probably 30 years.”

The three most common mental illnesses people suffer from are depression, anxiety and substance abuse, Enns explained.

“How do we cope?” he asked.

Many people turn to unhealthy habits to help deal with their mental disorders, such as smoking, alcohol, pharma abuse and cannabis.

“This is how I think you guys made the decision that mental health was important.”

All of these habits are detrimental to your health, he said. Smoking causes cancer and many people become alcoholics or drug addicts from self-medicating with prescription drugs or marijuana.

“The reality is our brains (before 25 years) haven’t stopped growing,” Enns said. “Every time you use that stuff, it takes away what you could have been.”

People need to start talking about mental health and the problems that come with it, he said.

“Somewhere along the way we were taught … that you do not talk about mental illness,” Enns said. “You do not talk about it, you suffer in silence, and you never talk about it because it is humiliating. We were taught we have a reputation to uphold.

“So what does that cause?” he asked. “It causes us to be fearful, to be isolated, we don’t know who to trust and are vulnerable. We have got to bring the stigma down.”

He said the students have helped take that first step in breaking down the wall by addressing the issue in their study.

“You have identified you want to help your campus, you are getting educated and you are involved,” Enns said.

He advised the students to try and maintain a healthy life/work balance, even if it may seem daunting at times.

The final speaker, McLeod, gave the students insight into how to step into their roles they will play in the future by telling them about her own life.

“We are all forces of nature,” McLeod said. “It is my hope that at the end of this presentation you will know it begins with you and who you (interact) with others can really make a difference in how you lead people and how you come to know yourself.”

She said there are many sources in our lives that shape up into who we become.

“People make an impact -- who are they and where do you draw your strengths from?” she asked the students. “We all learn from each other, so I am going to share stories.”

McLeod said that most of her family serve as inspirations, from her grandparents to her own children.

Growing up, McLeod was not a good student.

“I daydreamed, I did not have good self-confidence, I didn’t have faith in myself and the belief that I could do anything,” McLeod said. “I don’t know where that came from. We learn from experiences in our lives and contribute a lot of that to the way I was.”

After hearing one of her teachers say she would find high school a challenge, McLeod set out to prove him wrong.

“It was the (catalyst) for me to take the other route,” McLeod said.

She went from a D-student to graduating with a B-average.

After graduating, McLeod continued her journey, backpacking around Europe and getting her teaching degree.

“One thing I have learned to do is celebrate accomplishments, whether it (big or small), pat yourself on the back,” McLeod said. “We don’t do that enough … Make a point of doing that, acknowledging that you have been strong. You are here because you moved forward and you should feel good about that.”

She told the students to question who they want to be and what they want to do with their lives.

The student response for the project has been amazing, Anonson said.

“There are times when it is hard to engage students to get involved in things like this,” she said. “Today we were overwhelmed. We thought we would have 40 students and we have close to 260 students who actually attended. We were just thrilled.”

Most of the students appreciate the work that has been done on their behalf.

“The students have told us that they have felt heard that people know what some of their issues and concerns are and their issues are absolutely being addressed,” Anonson said.

“The important thing is that the people at the front lines, the community itself, are reminded and it comes to their consciousness of how important some of these issues are so they take them on and do something about them as well, to mobilize and motivate their community because that is how things get done if the people who have the biggest concern are intimately involved with working on the problem.”

She said that  if they have helped one student, the project has been a success.

“When we began the project, if we impacted one student and their health, if we impacted one student to thing abut their world and see how they could make it healthier, not just for themselves but the people around them, we knew we would be successful,” Anonson said.

“We are just thrilled with the turnout today and the number of students who engaged. We do believe students are more and more thinking about body, mind and soul, how they can be healthy in all those realms, not just physically but mentally and spiritually as well.”

There will be a second presentation to finish the project on Feb. 6 at SIAST. A Saskatchewan Roughrider will be speaking to the students, reminding them how important they are.

Organizations: College of Nursing, University of Saskatchewan, E.A. Rawlinson Centre Mental Health and Addiction Services for PAPHR Brett Enns Student Success Services First Nations University Grace McLeod

Geographic location: La Ronge, Europe

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