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McGill student who battled depression now promoting mental health on campus

There is something very unusual about Ryan Golt’s graduation photo from McGill University.

He has the standard suit enhanced with some coloured academic regalia, a big grin of accomplishment — and a bigger sign that reads “F — k the Stigma.”

That’s what you do when you graduate on time, with a double major in psychology and political science, after battling a depression that sucked the life out of you, made you feel ashamed and forced you to put on a mask feigning happiness.

Until he overcame it. And went public last year with a powerful blog — prompted by the Bell Let’s Talk campaign aimed at breaking down the barriers associated with mental illness — which got such an overwhelming response that Golt finally realized there was a mental health crisis on campus that needed to be addressed.

So that’s what he’s doing now, as he heads a team organizing a three-day event at McGill this week, under the auspices of Hillel McGill, called Stronger Than Stigma: McGill Students for Mental Health.

One student promoting the campaign, which includes students posing on campus with a Stronger Than Stigma sign, said: “The stigma is what perpetuates this culture of shame. I think that we need to work on educating the general public on how to accept that mental illness is not something to be ashamed of.”

Nancy Low, clinical director of McGill’s mental health services, said the event looks fantastic and especially praised its focus on allaying stigmatization concerns.

There’s no question that her department is swamped — there has been an increase in demand of 35 per cent since 2010 and the waiting list has swollen to 180 recently, she said. It typically takes two to four months for students seeking therapy.

Last year, the university’s mental health practitioners — 13 psychiatrists and psychologists — saw 3,500 students at 23,000 appointments.

But it still wasn’t enough.

“There’s clear recognition that we need more services but we have budgetary limits,” Low said. Instead, they have tried other interventions, like McGill’s Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP), which offers group sessions to help students manage their issues, at least until they can see a counsellor.

One benefit of that is that students like having the support of others in a similar position, Low explained, which is something they don’t get from therapy.

Golt, who is going on to do a master’s in educational psychology, applauds McGill’s mental health services for doing a good job, but says they’re overwhelmed and unable to meet the increasing demand. He hopes his Stronger Than Stigma event can help bridge that gap.

It’s no coincidence that the event is on the eve of the most stressful time of year for university students, with projects and presentations due and final exams coming up.

With all the pressure, competition and course load at school, Golt said, he fears students simply don’t have the time to practise the self-care they need.

“This environment just doesn’t support positive mental health,” he said in an interview, adding it’s not healthy to spend countless hours on consecutive days in the library. His hope is to give students the tools they need to help themselves because he believes depression and anxiety are huge problems among the university crowd (and Low concurred).

There’s no question that a university is a high-stress environment, often with a lot of unrecognized substance abuse going on, said David Benrimoh, a fourth-year medical student going into psychiatry who sits on the McGill senate’s mental health services advisory board.

And McGill’s mental health services, he says, is doing its best to provide adequate services. But the demand is growing “exponentially” and, short of buying another building and filling it with psychologists and psychiatrists, the university “just can’t meet the demand in a timely way.”

He’s not sure why there’s so much more demand. Perhaps an increased willingness to talk about the problem, perhaps the increasingly competitive university environment itself. Whatever it is, he said, “demand is exploding” and waiting times are growing.

He agrees with Golt that prevention is important and “creating a culture of wellness” on campus is part of that.

Golt’s goal for the event — which begins on Monday with keynote speaker Kevin Breel, a comedian who has been outspoken about his battle with depression — is to raise awareness, fight the stigmatization that accompanies mental illness, and promote self-care and mental hygiene on campus so that students understand how eating healthy, working out, doing yoga and practising mindfulness (living in the present) can help.

“Awareness is my weapon against a silent killer that lurks deep inside too many of us,” Golt wrote in his blog, which was really the first time he exposed his struggles, even to his own sister and brother. “We need to rally together to do something about it. Not in some lab and clinical trial, but among ourselves.”

He knows he was fortunate to have been able to go for private counselling and says he manages his depression through proper eating and exercise, yoga and counselling.

He’s pleased that the event already has more than 650 likes on Facebook, and knowing that there are so many people experiencing similar problems is what drives him to boost awareness.

“I’m really just opening a conversation that needs to be had,” Golt said. “The day I reached out was the most important day of my life … This may be a battle that I never win, but I will be damned if it’s a battle I will lose.”

Retrieved from Montreal Gazette, written by Karen Seidman