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Mental health plays huge role in student success

VERMILION, Alta. — When Katey Darr feels anxious or depressed, she usually heads to the stables for a ride or checks in on Lakeland College’s student-managed farm to keep busy.

“The farm really helps with my mental health,” said Darr, a fourth-year crop technology student.

“When I was a kid, I know that’s what really saved me.”

Darr is among hundreds of students who have moved from the farm to study in urban centres.

Some live alone and are without friends, and most no longer have daily face-to-face interactions with their families.

The demands and workloads of college are also greater than high school.

“Some days it was like panic because I had no idea what to do or how to do anything,” said Darr, recalling her first year as a new student.

“I didn’t know anybody and I had to figure it out.”

Hannah Musterer, president of Lakeland College Students Association, said every person’s mental health is different and many students experience anxiety and depression.

“With the stigma, a lot of people don’t want to be known for their mental health,” she said. “For most people, it’s embarrassing. They think it lowers them in a sense.”

Musterer said more students are talking about mental health and seeking treatment. Universities and colleges have also ramped up efforts to improve the mental health services for students.

Over the next three years, the Alberta government is investing $25.8 million that is geared toward improving such post-secondary services.

Lakeland will receive instalments of $175,000, with the funds used to create a mental health strategy. That could include more awareness programming, online training courses that provide students with tips to keep their mental health in check, as well as mental health first-aid training to teach how to treat others who need help.

As well, the school is considering hiring a mental health co-ordinator who would be responsible for rolling out training and programs.

That would relieve some of the burden from the school’s lone councillor, said Janice Aughey, dean of student and academic services at Lakeland.

“Having one councillor means they can’t be always available to all students at all times,” Aughey said.

“So what this strategy does is it creates a co-ordinated effort.”

In Edmonton, the University of Alberta will receive instalments of $1 million for mental health programs.

The money will go toward that school’s health centre, but work is underway to enhance programming at the school of agricultural, life and environmental sciences, said Jim Bohun, the assistant dean of academic and student programs with that faculty.

For example, ALES will be piloting a program that will see senior students pair up with new undergrads. Bohun said this ensures new students can connect with peers and transition smoothly into university life.

“We do take real care to identity problems before they become big problems,” he said, noting ALES also has student advisers who ensure students are OK.

“For the most part, our students face the same academic pressures any student faces. But the main difference is going from small schools to large institutions. Those transitions are probably the toughest piece.”

For Darr at Lakeland, she’s learned how to keep her mental health in check, especially on days where things feel like they’re going downhill.

“It’s about keeping busy but also giving time for myself,” she said. “It’s making sure I’m not laying in bed being sad. I have to actively go for walks or buy myself ice cream. It’s focusing on something other than my sickness or my illness.”

As well, she will continue to advocate at school so more students come forward to improve their mental health.

“No matter who you are, male or female, it can affect you,” she said. “Mental health plays a huge part here, so if we can keep their minds healthy, then when they go to school, they will be able to excel in class and in life.”

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