New support for mental health at NAIT

New funding helps the polytechnic sharpen its focus on student and staff well-being

Statistics around mental health at NAIT can be taken two ways.

The polytechnic’s counsellors (which together make up more than half-a-dozen full-time positions) saw a 48% increase in sessions for anxiety, depression and other issues since March 2016. That could be taken to mean students face greater pressures than ever. But there’s a silver lining: the uptick also suggests they’re aware of services and, most importantly, not afraid to use them.

That’s the direction Lynn Ryan wants to see for campus culture. As the polytechnic’s first mental-health coordinator, it’s also her priority. Hired in February with assistance from a provincial program to improve post-secondary student mental health, Ryan will look to expand NAIT’s current mental health initiatives, identify gaps and help build relationships with other post-secondaries and supportive organizations such as Alberta Health Services.

As much as her work involves focusing on the programs themselves – which include everything from counselling to pet therapy to trades-centric suicide prevention programs it involves ensuring more students than ever know they’re available and removing any stigma around accessing them.

lynn ryan, NAIT mental health coordinator

“It’s a big project to take on,” says Clint Galloway, director of Student Well-being and Community, the department that hired Ryan. “It spans all four of NAIT’s schools.”

Considering those stats, that project is poised to affect an ever-growing number of students. Here, Ryan shares what she hopes to do for them and for the staff that supports them. What led you to this role?

Lynn Ryan (pictured in blue): A few things. First, I love coordinating and project managing. But, also, the posting spoke to me. Both my parents suffered from depression and anxiety and weren’t helped, but didn’t see it in themselves either. They’ve both passed, so it’s kind of unresolved [for me] in a sense. I want people to know that there is help and that there is no shame in asking for it. [Doing so] is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Do you feel the stigma that may have affected your parents’ generation lingers?

I would say so. That is one of our focuses, to destigmatize and normalize the conversation. One thing Clint says is that we’d say we have a dentist appointment but we’d never say we had a counselling appointment. Why don’t we start?

"We’d say we have a dentist appointment but we’d never say we had a counselling appointment. Why don’t we start?"

How do we get there?

Education. I think it’s going to be a slow process. I think the more we get it out there and start talking about it, it’ll start small and grow.

Why is it important to do this at NAIT?

[Our students are] of the ages where mental illness tends to present. They’re transitioning out of secondary education, into post-secondary and then into the rest of their lives. It’s a period of upheaval and anxiety and change for them -- and a key time to catch that.

What does an average day look like for you?

Right now it’s a lot of research. Just looking at what NAIT is doing and other institutes are doing and then trying to see what we’re missing and what we can improve on. And reaching out to different departments to see if they have identified any needs.

Where are we at as a post-secondary trying to improve student mental health?

I think we’re doing well. We have a lot of initiatives already in place that we’re tweaking and enhancing and expanding, like our pet therapy program (see below); increased opportunity for physical activity (so free fitness classes for staff and students until the end of spring); Tough Enough to Talk About It, a program for suicide prevention that’s rolled out through the School of Skilled Trades. There’s also the mental health first aid course offered free of charge for staff and students.

I think the fact that my position exists is proof that NAIT is committed to fostering a healthy environment and looking for new ways to educate and talk about mental wellness in a sustainable way and over the long-term.

flynn, nait's animal assisted therapy dog and students

What do you foresee as the biggest challenge?

Honestly, probably reducing the stigma.

To reduce the stigma, there needs to be education and open conversation about mental illness. This reduces fear and creates a safe environment for communication. And we need to continue to encourage attendance and participation in our programs and events to make sure that staff and students are aware of the services we offer.

How do you feel about your chances of success?

Very excited. We’re pulling together everything we’re doing and enhancing it. It’s an opportunity to see something grow that I think is incredibly important. And I’m very hopeful. Everyone [on staff] I’ve talked to wants to be involved and sees it as a positive. Everyone wants to know how they can make this better, how they can help.

Ultimately, what do you hope to accomplish?

I think just [a sense of] openness and sustainability for the programming. We want what we develop to continue to grow. That it’s not a buzzword. That it becomes a part of who we are.

Funding for mental health at NAIT

In fall 2017, the provincial government approved a grant proposal from the polytechnic for $825,000 through the Post-Secondary Student Mental Health grant program. The first installment was awarded in December with the remainder to come during the 2018-19 fiscal year.

Funds are now being used for program improvement, promotion, non-clinical services,  coordination (including Ryan’s role as NAIT’s first mental health coordinator) and more.

The grant program gives NAIT the opportunity to apply for further funding to be used starting in spring 2019.

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