A boost to mental wellness fueled by the power of many

An alumni reunion sparked a joint effort to help medical students enhance mental health.

Laura Vega - 12 July 2018

The University of Alberta's MD Class of 1992 came together to promote student mental health by establishing an innovative award for medical students.

The idea was born in the spring of 2017, when the alumni were preparing to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their graduation. Having always been a very close group with friendships that remain today, the absences of those who were not going to attend the reunion became more stark, especially missing one of their classmates who took his own life shortly after they graduated.

"It had a huge impact on us," said Dilini Vethanayagam, a 1992 alumna and associate professor in the U of A Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry's Department of Medicine. "We wanted to do something to honour his memory, but also to address this issue of student mental health. I've been working on main campus with the General Faculties Council, specifically its Council of Student Affairs, and I keep hearing so many issues developing in this area every year."

One in five Canadians will suffer from a mental health concern during their lifetime. In the specific case of students, a survey performed by the National College Health Assessment at the University of Alberta revealed cases of academic performance being impacted by pre-existing mood, anxiety and eating disorders, and how lacking a sense of belonging on campus can minimize social and emotional supports affecting academic performance, among other factors.

Vethanayagam spearheaded the project to create an award on behalf of the MD class of 1992 through their collective donations, as a monetary incentive for new U of A medical students who become involved in initiatives concerning student mental health on campus and elsewhere.

"We must be compassionate, caring health professionals-all of us. That's what it's all about. This is a wonderful opportunity to recognize medical students that are doing that kind of work," explained Vethanayagam.

There were no minimum amounts for the donations, simply encouraging everyone to consider giving to the project within their means.

The MD Class of '92 at their 25th anniversary reunion

What was initially conceived as a fundraiser for a five-year award surpassed all expectations thanks to the positive response from the class. "We were getting closer to raising enough funds for an endowment," said Jonathan Choy, '92 MD, clinical professor of cardiology and associate dean of clinical faculty. "I said to the class, 'It's an idea to consider; maybe if we all just kick it up a little bit, regardless of the amount, we can leave a lasting legacy'."

The group agreed, and together they were able to set up an endowment for a longer-lasting gift, an award applicable to first- and second-year medical students. The award will be presented for the first time this 2018 to 2019 academic year.

"I'm grateful that the class came together for this and gave in their own way and possibilities," said Choy. "It brought us closer together as a class."

Shedding light on the need to address mental health care

Alberto Choy, '92 MD, U of A Department of Psychiatry, emphasizes the importance of starting conversations around mental health and its preventative care.

"It's good that this award is now a part of the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, being a recognized institution, but it's just one piece of a larger puzzle," said (Alberto) Choy. "The larger goal is that students are comfortable talking about mental wellness and mental health issues."

"There are wonderful mental health services available, but people currently look for them only when they are struggling a lot. These initiatives are not ingrained in the day-to-day of a person's life yet. People now think of taking time out of their day to exercise-it is important that people remember that being well is working out physically a few times a week, and also taking care of each other mentally a few times a week or every day. Taking the time to check on others and yourself and see if you're doing OK."

One of the challenges the class of '92 wants to take on is helping break the stigma that surrounds mental health issues, especially for health professionals and learners.

"Unfortunately, no matter how open-minded we are, mental health issues are still stigmatized," added (Jonathan) Choy. "If you told people you have cancer or heart disease and you're going to get treatment, people wouldn't think about it twice. But if you're a physician and said, 'I'm suffering from depression, anxiety or paranoia' people would question if you can do your job. This view on mental health care has to change; we have to be brave and address these issues."

Vethanayagam says it is necessary for all medical professionals to be able to assess mental health issues confidently.

"I'm a respirologist and an asthma specialist. Many patients have come to me with shortness of breath thinking they have asthma as the cause of their symptom, but what they have is in part or in whole mental-health related. The stigma is still very strong, so using an inhaler is better for them than acknowledging depression that hasn't been managed well. We have to remove the inhalers that they actually never needed, or reduce medications and say, 'you need to seek the right treatment'."

According to (Alberto) Choy, even though mental health is a topic being approached from many different angles, the class of 1992 is confident that the new student award will be a step in the right direction to ensure wellness in such a pressing area of health care.

"I'm happy that we are promoting something to say it's OK to think about these topics and talk openly about them."