Shayleen Murrell spent the weeks before she stepped into a university classroom mentally working through every possible scenario the first day of class might bring.
“I walked the halls, mapped out every escape route, and even prepared myself to walk into the classroom and have everyone turn and laugh at me,” says the graduate of MacEwan University’s Bachelor of Child and Youth Care program who also lives with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety. “Those negative thoughts might sound ridiculous now, but I hyped things up so much in my head that they felt very real.”
It turned out that Shayleen's first day was fine. So was her second day. In fact, most days she spent studying child and youth care were unremarkable from a mental health perspective. But when things did get challenging, she knew where to find help – thanks in part to what she was learning in her field of study and to the counselling she received before she started university.
Not every student is exposed to those same resources and perspective. That’s why Shayleen was happy to be among the first students to share her story in March 2018 as part of Changing Minds, a new program created to promote mental health at MacEwan.
“I’ve been told that I don’t act like I have obsessive-compulsive disorder or anxiety,” she says. “When people try to talk about their depression, or their anxiety, or their OCD, we often paint them all with the same brush. In reality, mental health issues don’t look the same for everyone.”
That diversity of experience and the idea that mental health occurs on a continuum (from healthy to reacting and from injured to ill) are just two of many messages emphasized in Changing Minds, which connects students with training opportunities, support services, resources and stories from real people within the MacEwan community.
Join us for REEL Learning
Following a screening of Silver Linings Playbook at Metro Cinema on January 29, a panel of experts from MacEwan will discuss stigma around mental illness, how mental health is portrayed in media and how recovery and hope are possible.
“Stories are powerful,” says Sydney Bennell, registered nurse and student wellness coach with the university’s Wellness and Psychological Services. “When students hear about people just like them who have come through the challenging parts of university and are okay, it normalizes their own experiences with mental health. It makes it okay to talk about the fact that sometimes we struggle and experience hardships.”
That understanding is also a big part of creating a supportive culture around mental health on campus. “It’s about having open conversations,” says Sydney. “It’s about moving beyond awareness and taking action to make things better for everyone.”
At MacEwan, taking action has many forms: a range of wellness and psychological services (counselling, social workers, registered nurses and other professionals); free in-depth workshops on mental health for students, faculty and staff; embedding mental health programming into the curriculum and even opportunities for students to take the lead.
A group of peer health educators plans regular activities and displays to break the ice and get students thinking about how mental health impacts every aspect of their lives. “It’s for students, by students and I think that’s really positive,” says Bennell. “We listen to what students tell us has the most impact and then plan programming and resources to match.”
One example is a screening of Silver Linings Playbook at Metro Cinema on Jan. 29 as part of REEL Learning. After the film, a panel of experts from MacEwan will discuss stigma around mental illness, how mental health is portrayed in media and how recovery and hope are possible.
That message of hope is important to Shayleen, who says that although we all know someone who struggles with their mental health (whether we realize it or not), it’s rare to hear anyone speak about those issues in terms of strengths.
“We don’t hear about the person who struggles with anxiety but is coping really well — so well that it doesn’t really affect their day-to-day life,” she says. “I can only speak for myself, but my own experience with an OCD diagnosis has a positive side. In spite of my struggles, I’m hyper-organized and meticulous, which works to my benefit in a job that is crisis-driven, intense and chaotic. ”
It’s why she continues to share and encourages the students who follow after her to do the same.
“I’ve learned to own my story — to talk about my struggles and successes, my story of growing up, my education and employment,” she says. “University is the perfect place to do that. If we can make our classrooms and hallways safe spaces to talk about mental health, it’s a good step toward making our future workplaces — and our communities — safe too.”
This story is part of Changing Minds: Creating a healthy campus – an initiative that makes mental health a priority. The program connects training opportunities, support services, resources and stories from real people across the MacEwan University community.