‘Help is available’: Student mental health services at UBC

Sitting on a bench outside Totem Park student residence, Kirsten Tarasoff remembers feeling an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.

Patty Hambler (left), director of health promotion and education at UBC Student Services, and Agnes d’Entremont (right), mechanical engineering instructor and faculty lead for a pilot project in UBC’s mechanical engineering program that teaches second-year students about mental health literacy and understanding the stress response. Credit: Paul Joseph/University of British Columbia

Sitting on a bench outside Totem Park student residence, Kirsten Tarasoff remembers feeling an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.

It was her first year as a student at UBC, and Tarasoff was struggling to adjust to university life far away from her family while also dealing with an unhealthy long-distance relationship.

“It was a tumultuous time,” she recalled. “I felt completely isolated. I remember going to sit on the bench, and just breaking down and thinking, ‘I cannot do this.’”

Kirsten Tarasoff
Kirsten Tarasoff, third year arts student, struggled to adjust to university life when she first arrived at UBC.

Tarasoff realized that she needed help urgently and decided to seek support at UBC. Now in her third year, she is thriving academically and is involved in a number of extracurricular activities including the badminton club.

“Getting help right away was crucial for me,” she said. “It can be really difficult to muster the energy to ask for help when you’re dealing with mental health issues, but you have to try.”

Building a sense of community support and being proactive

While not all students have trouble adjusting during their first year in university, it can be a challenging time for many, said Patty Hambler, director of health promotion and education at UBC Student Services.

To help instil a sense of community for students early on, UBC offers a variety of orientation programs such as Jump Start, a multi-day orientation program designed to help first-year students make new friends, meet their faculty and explore the UBC community.

One goal of orientation is to enhance students’ mental health literacy and to provide them with the skills and strategies to care for their mental and physical health as soon as they arrive at UBC, said Hambler. Learning how to build and maintain mental health, and developing effective skills to seek help are key aspects of mental health literacy.

“The university is a big place, and some students may find it difficult to navigate its many resources and services, especially when they are feeling stressed,” she said. “So it’s important to ensure students are aware of the services available to them as soon as they arrive, and that they feel a sense of community support early on.”

Early intervention plays a key role in helping students feel supported, said Hambler.

“Just knowing that these services are available is important,” she said. “No matter what you’re struggling with at UBC, there is someone here who can help you, but you have to ask for help. Don’t wait. Get help early and know that help is available.”

If a student doesn’t know where to go, trained staff and volunteers will always help them find the right service for their needs, she added.

No matter what the issue, help is available

A student who is feeling stressed about exams, deadlines, grades, relationships, or adjusting to university, for example, can visit the Wellness Centre in the Life Building and talk to a wellness peer about coping strategies and tools to manage stress.

Empower Me, a free 24/7 life coaching and counselling service, allows students to connect with qualified counsellors, consultants, and life coaches for a variety of issues at any time of day. The service, which is available in multiple languages, also offers a full suite of academic life services, such as life coaching, financial planning, and nutritional counselling.

“Students can get support for any kind of issue through Empower Me, from relationship problems to depression, anxiety, stress, and more,” said Hambler. “Being able to connect with a professional at any time of day over the phone, online or in-person, allows for a lot of accessibility and flexibility for students who have busy schedules.”

Empower Me is available to all students who have extended health coverage through the AMS/GSS. Students who do not have this coverage should check with their extended health insurance provider, as they may offer a similar service.

If a student is experiencing mental health difficulties impacting daily functioning such as low mood lasting more than two weeks, persistent worry, panic attacks, flashbacks or intrusive thoughts, interpersonal conflict, or disordered eating, they can also drop by Counselling Services and book an appointment with a wellness advisor, who will connect them with the level of support that best meets their needs including e-mental health resources, workshops, group therapy or individual therapy.

A student who is experiencing a high level of distress, such as loss of touch with reality or severely disorganized thinking, severe hopelessness, suicidal thinking, recent cutting, severe restricted eating or binging, or substance use concerns is encouraged to seek medical attention through their family doctor or through Student Health Service.

If there is an imminent risk of harm—meaning the student is having active thoughts of suicide or displaying threatening behaviour to themselves or others—they are encouraged to go to the nearest hospital or to call 911.

UBC’s Alma Mater Society (AMS) also offers mental health services for students. Speakeasy provides free, confidential, one-on-one peer support for students and staff facing a wide variety of mental health challenges. Meanwhile, Vice provides free, confidential education, peer-dialogue, and mentorship to help students and staff find a healthy balance with alcohol, drugs, technology or anything else they may be struggling with.

For students who might not seek help because they feel uncomfortable reaching out, services like Early Alert provide a way to offer them support.

Early Alert allows faculty and staff who notice a student facing difficulties to identify their concerns using a secure online form. Advisors review their concerns and identify the most appropriate resources for the student’s needs. Academic advisors then reach out to the student and offer to connect them with resources and support to help them get back on track. 

Reaching students in the classroom 

That coordinated approach to ensuring students feel their mental health and wellbeing is supported extends to the classroom as well.

Through a pilot project in UBC’s mechanical engineering program, second-year students learn about mental health literacy and understanding the stress response through content embedded in the academic curriculum. Similar initiatives are also underway in nursing, biology and creative writing.

Agnes d’Entremont, mechanical engineering instructor and faculty lead for the pilot project, said the program was developed based on a need for additional support that faculty observed in the classroom.

“The transition to university and higher levels of responsibility in coursework is stressful for a lot of students, especially in intensive programs like engineering,” she explained. “If we really want to see our students succeed in the larger world after university, they’re going to have to deal with stressful situations. So we thought, why don’t we equip them for those challenges?”

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

For student Kirsten Tarasoff, the coping skills she learned through counselling, along with taking medication, were vital to helping her move past her rocky start at UBC.

Although her breakdown on the bench outside Totem Park now feels like a distant memory, she encouraged any students who may be feeling the same way to not be afraid to seek help.

“There are people out there who want to listen to you and understand what you’re going through, and sometimes it takes a lot of really persistent action to get yourself feeling better,” she said. “But when you reach that point, it’s worth it.”

For more information on support resources at UBC, click here.