Wider Horizons

Students often encounter overwhelming pressure to succeed. When the questions come, Lethbridge College counsellors listen.great expectations

They should number their days on campus among the happiest of their lives, a time to slough the restrictions of childhood and prepare for the adult world and careers that wait beyond.

For many post-secondary learners campus life entails a higher set of expectations for academic performance coupled with living independently for the first time.

Fortunately for those who stumble and seek help, Lethbridge College provides assistance through Counselling Services and the Health Centre. Students can access a range of confidential aid, from something as simple as a friendly ear, to psychiatric care.

“We see problems all over the board,” says Carly Sharpe, new to the college last fall. “Some suffer from low self-esteem, depression, anxiety or body-image problems, to name a few.”

Others, still, are battling homesickness.

Sharpe, one of Lethbridge College’s counsellors, describes a generic, common situation of a first-year student who misses home so closes up and stays in residence to study. He is feeling overwhelmed by the transition and is unsure of the supports available to him.

One of the roles of Lethbridge College counsellors is to be there and help students sort out their experience.

Students can experience all the emotions from life events that anyone goes through, from parental break-up to deaths in the family. For mature students who have left a job to return to the classroom, the sudden shift in situation can be jarring. Sharpe and other counsellors use the many on-campus tools available when appropriate, from financial aid, career counselling, academic supports at the Learning Café, student clubs, and Kodiaks games.

Off-campus referrals are also made to organizations such as Harbour House, Lethbridge Family Services, Lethbridge Housing Authority, Lethbridge Immigrant Services, First Nations groups and food banks.

“Some students come to us wanting to restore balance in their lives,” says Sharpe, a registered provisional psychologist with a BA in psychology and a master of education in counselling psychology, both from the University of Lethbridge. “We provide a warm, welcoming environment so we can explore the problem. It’s free and confidential and there are no stupid questions.”

On occasion, a student will face a steeper slope to wellness. Dr. John Kennedy, a psychiatrist who spends two days a week in the campus Health Centre, says stress is a biological event accompanied by physical and emotional pain, which can result in a fear of failure. Students generally react in one of three ways, says Kennedy. Some run away from the problem, cutting classes, socializing more often and revising their expectations to meet lower standards. Others become paralyzed, feeling helpless and overwhelmed, unable to negotiate the system and find resources put in place to help them. Still others become highly focused, spending sleepless nights frenetically studying, giving up friends, exercise and nutrition.

“We have the resources to assist all three types,” says Kennedy, a “little guy from Canada” who headed up geriatric psychiatry studies at Indiana University and is an international authority on psychotropic drugs, tools he believes are overused. “We’re here for the students, help them with challenges and assist in removing the barriers they’re struggling with in such a way that the success is theirs, so that they own it. The therapies offered here don’t cure patients; the patients cure themselves.”

Students, he says, face two broad experiences: participating with groups of people they have never met, and the challenge of learning at a pace they can manage. That pace is set by instructors, and is usually considerably faster than that of high school. The combination can cause stress.

As young hockey players move up through their age groups to a faster, harder game, those unable to keep pace begin to fall behind. Students face the same problem.

“The situation begins to snowball for them,’ says Kennedy, an adjunct professor of neuroscience at the University of Lethbridge, and clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Alberta. “They lose their sense of optimism and their self-esteem falls. The biggest source of risk is struggling in the face of stress and not seeking help.”

Kennedy would like to see students who work through their problems under guidance and consultation awarded educational credits for their journey. Most, he says, become “experts” in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, a treatment he uses to help them identify an aspect of their lives which they perceive incorrectly.

“It’s much like the ancients who believed the sun revolved around the Earth, because that’s what they thought they were observing. I help people integrate their mind and body holistically through therapeutic meditation and self-awareness. Guys like me think this should be part of the curriculum in Grade 4.”

Recent research, while American, indicates students with moderate to severe depression who sought counselling at U.S. campuses increased seven per cent from 1998 to 2009, and that the swing is towards more severe psychological problems. And, reported the CBC last year, counsellors at some Canadian universities have noticed more students are seeking help and their problems are more serious than in the past.

Kennedy says when he returned to the city from the United States, he wanted to make a difference by “filling the gaps” in treatment.

“I thought something is not right when someone who is suicidal has to wait six months to get help.”

While he met resistance elsewhere, he says Lethbridge College was fully supportive, from the time he walked in the door, of what he was trying to accomplish. He spends Mondays and Fridays on campus, and is a key resource in the college’s efforts to serve the emotional needs of its students.

Wider Horizons
Lethbridge College
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