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New Campus Mental Health Strategy director talks reducing stigma

By Scott Strasser, July 5 2016 —

Andrew Szeto is an assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s psychology department. On July 1, he began his new role as the director of the U of C’s Campus Mental Health Strategy, a campus-wide plan to tackle mental health issues. Launched in December 2015, the strategy includes 28 recommendations under six strategic focuses that will aim to improve the mental health and well-being of students, staff and faculty at the U of C. The Gauntlet spoke to Szeto about the U of C’s mental health strategy and the importance of reducing stigma surrounding mental illnesses.

Gauntlet: To start, can you tell me about your history at the U of C?

Szeto: I came to the university in 2010. I was a post-doctoral fellow with Dr. Keith Dobson, looking at stigma and interventions to reduce the stigma of mental illness. Since 2013, I’ve been an assistant professor in the department of psychology and I’ve continued my work with looking at destigmatization of mental illness. I’ve been looking at attitudes, how personality relates to those who stigmatize, as well as looking at different interventions to reduce the stigma of mental illness.

G: What do you mean by reducing the stigma?

S: Stigma is a complex process where people are labeled, and those who are labeled have specific traits attached to them. This leads to separation between those who are labeled and other people in the population. This leads to unequal outcomes such as prejudice, discrimination and general negativity towards people with those labels.

I look at how to reduce those things. One of the biggest things I look at is contact-based education. Specifically, looking at how people with lived experience of mental illness can reduce that stigma by talking about their experiences with illness stigma, but more importantly their experiences with recovery, with seeking help — providing that positive model for health seeking.

G: You’re also involved with the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Can you tell me about this organization and your role within it?

S: The MHCC is a non-governmental organization funded by Health Canada, but that exists separately from them. Essentially, what the commission does is act as a catalyst to bring people together from all walks of life — researchers, people with lived experience of mental illnesses, service providers, people who are in general in the mental health space. We bring those people together to try and transform the mental health system into a better place than what it is currently.

G: What factors led to the need for a new Campus Mental Health Strategy?

S: It’s important to point out there are many factors that led to the University of Calgary developing this strategy. One of the factors was the National College Health Assessment, which was conducted in 2013. This was essentially a survey of students looking at physical health, their experience on campus and mental health. We saw in the stats that about 20 per cent of students were experiencing mental health problems every year. About one per cent have attempted suicide. A majority of students surveyed said they felt overwhelmed during the past 12 months and that they were stressed. Of course, we can’t deny that [the Brentwood tragedy] had some impact on this as well.

G: And [according to the report] university students are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues?

S: Incoming students are in a new phase of their lives. They’re transitioning. And even students who are leaving are transitioning. While they’re on campus here, they’re experiencing lots of times of stress — exam times, or when projects are due. There’s a lot of impact on students while they’re on campus.

G: The U of C created a task force to develop this plan, which you were a part of. What were the most striking or significant things the task force noticed while developing this strategy?

S: I was actually quite surprised by all the services, programs, initiatives and expertise that exist on campus already — the Wellness Centre, the Bystander Intervention program, various mental health programs, various mindfulness and stress reduction programs. Those all exist on campus.

I was also blown away by the expertise that exists on campus, for example the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research. All these have mental health experts and they do lots of great work.

G: What would you say the Campus Mental Health Strategy’s biggest priorities are?

S: I think one of the biggest priorities is always to reduce the stigma of mental illness. We know that stigma exists and is alive and well. We’re making inroads, but we know it still exists and people with mental illness are being discriminating upon. There’s negative attitudes towards them. I still think reducing stigma is one of the things we can do.

Other big priorities for the strategy are things we don’t have currently. So things like policies and procedures that are conducive to mental health. We do have a lot of policies, but are they the best for mental health? We don’t know yet. We have to do those audits.

One of the initiatives we don’t currently have is a for-credit course for students on mental health and wellness and resiliency. I think that’s a big priority we can get into campus.

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