Winter 2015

Your Letters

Alumni Respond to Mental Health Story

We were gratified to see the reaction prompted by our Autumn 2015 cover story on student mental health. Our intention was to get people talking about the topic, and you certainly responded. But mental health issues are much more complex than one magazine story can convey. Many Edmonton-area readers likely heard the family of Evan Tran speaking out about this U of A student’s longtime struggle with depression. In October, Evan took his own life. While we rarely highlight such tragedies in the pages of New Trail, his family expressed a wish that his death could spur a larger conversation about mental health. Several days after his death, New Trail received the following letter, which expresses in a way we never could what it’s like to live with mental illness. We remind all readers that talking about mental health is an important part of addressing the issue.

If you are in crisis, you can call Adult Mental Health Crisis Response Services 24/7 at 780-342-7777.

A Very Personal Story

I enjoy reading New Trail to learn more of the world around me and be informed of what other alumni are undertaking. With the Autumn 2015 edition and its article on mental wellness, the world smashed through my front door, greeting me with my own stark reality.

I stopped and started this letter several times. At times I was writing it solely for my benefit, as an aid in my own healing, and did not initially anticipate sharing it with the world. Following the sad story of Evan Tran’s death (in addition to those of “Lucy” and “Nicole” in the article), I felt compelled to share my own story.

I have long suffered from depression. It first appeared in Grade 5 and carried through graduation at the University of Alberta.

I never thought my depression was anything too serious. It was something that I had to deal with while appearing to be normal in order to fit into society’s expectations. However, depression followed and haunted me through my post-university life. It culminated in 1995 with a suicide attempt.

Fortunately I was not successful. Like most who attempt suicide, I did not want to die. I simply wanted the pain to end.

In 1998, thanks to some hard work and support of others, I made some progress in battling my depression. I thought I was rid of this soul-sucking companion. I was wrong. It continues to lurk in the shadows waiting for the right moment to appear. It has done so twice in the past years, but with the support of close friends I have been able to shove it back into the shadows.

Depression, along with any mental illness, is a scary companion. It is debilitating. It is energy-sucking. It is capable of causing a rational individual to make irrational decisions. I was fortunate to survive my only suicide attempt. It was enough of a wake-up call to get some assistance. I am fortunate that I did.

Self-harm also includes over-indulgence in substances and activities that may seem innocent but can end up hurting others. If one is fortunate, there may be the opportunity later in life to offer an apology. For me, it is the apology to those on (and off) campus that my actions may have hurt, or that I may have simply used. University should be a time of fond memories. My issues prevented it from being that way for me, and possibly for those I hurt. It was never the intention; one does not always realize what one does. My apologies to all, and to one person in agricultural engineering in particular. I am sorry.

This was not an easy process and even today there are memories surfacing, causing unbearable pain. I am now fortunate to have found a wonderful and loving companion. As happy and euphoric as I am now, it still saddens me to think that I could have had this years ago.

In closing, it is wonderful to see the inspirational efforts of students and staff at the U of A. It makes me proud to be an alumnus. And as a sufferer, it was an easy decision to step up and contribute to the mental wellness programs on Giving Day.

For those that are suffering, I feel your pain. You are not alone. Please do not be like me and waste decades living alone with this burden. Talk to someone. Almost anyone. A classmate. A counsellor. A trusted adviser. Even a stranger. Heck, contact me, New Trail has my details. I have been there and can talk about it. This is not a journey that one should go through alone.

For those who are concerned about someone you care about: please, initiate the conversation. It can be difficult but, as stated so eloquently on the cover of the Autumn edition, “one conversation can change everything.”

John Bulmer, ’86 BSc(AgEng), Medicine Hat, Alta.

Gender Fail

I look forward to every issue of New Trail, and the one that arrived in my mailbox today is characteristically full of interesting, well-produced content.

However, pages 10-11 took me aback [Autumn 2015, Degrees of Separation]. It’s bad enough that of the five alumni you opt to feature, only one is a woman. But then to have the connections (presumably intended to represent important, influential people/cultural touchstones) include only one woman? A full 21 of the 25 are occupied by a man.

I realize this was all meant as a bit of fun, but the optics are very poor.

Valerie Henitiuk, ’85 BA, ’88 MA, ’00 MA, ’05 PhD, Edmonton

Editor’s Note

More than one reader pointed out our male-centricity in this story. This was indeed a fail on our part. We try to remedy that here by highlighting an alumna and her remarkable connections — all female.

After university, Natasha Staniszewski, ’00 BCom, made the jump to sports broadcasting. > In 2013, Staniszewski covered the Ice Hockey Women’s World Championships in Ottawa alongside retired Team Canada hockey player Jennifer Botterill. > Botterill and Hayley Wickenheiser were gold-medal-winning teammates at the 2010 Winter Olympics. > Wickenheiser was inducted into the Canada Walk of Fame in 2014 the same year as former Supreme Court of Canada justice Louise Arbour. > When Arbour was president of the International Crisis Group in 2014, she presented Hillary Rodham Clinton with the organization’s Pursuit of Peace Award.

Missing One of the 5 Ws

I was glad to see coverage of mental health in New Trail. However, the article did not even consider the obvious question, which is why mental health has become such a large issue in North America — so that it “has an earlier onset [here] than anywhere else in the world” (page 22). It certainly can’t be just because of “the university experience,” especially since the article concedes that many arrive at university with mental health issues already.

Considering the diverse fields that consider mental well-being at the U of A, this was a major missed opportunity. My own suspicion is that it has to do with the sense of community that our cities do or do not foster. Edmonton, for its part, has developed according to a low-density model and often disregards “place-making,” which the U of A’s City-Region Studies Centre’s magazine, Curb, has recently covered extensively. An inability to connect with place, or trust in the continuity of place, and participate in a secure community is deeply distressing.

Kristine Kowalchuk, ’97 BA, ’12 PhD, Edmonton

Interfaith Chaplains a Vital Resource

I so look forward to receiving New Trail: the latest issue, especially, in dealing with mental health issues of university students, is exemplary. I plan to keep it in my office as a reference for students who are hesitant to reach out for help when under stress. I commend Amie Filkow for the quality of the research and reporting that went into this work. However, I do have one concern, which seems to be endemic to the University of Alberta: when listing services under “Where to Get Help” a significant omission occurred.

There are 13 interfaith chaplains on campus who serve students, staff and faculty through counselling, teaching and participating in university life. In April 2015, the Interfaith Chaplains Association received a Wellness Champion Award from the Wellness Project on campus for helping create a healthier campus community. Our letter of recognition from the interviewer for the award said, “I can’t think of a more important, more meaningful job than helping students who are spiritually and emotionally struggling, whether it be through discussing faith or curating memorials for students who have passed away. I’m in my first year of university and have had a hard time adjusting, but knowing that people like you and the other chaplains exist on campus is an immense comfort.”

I am of the opinion that a chaplain should have been interviewed for the article on mental health, with interfaith chaplains contact information also included. In my own practice on campus, I see that students have many “dark nights of the soul.”

We are consulted and included by the Dean of Students to join with other student health services during crisis situations; we hold vigils, conduct memorials, meet with students individually when asked, and encourage staff, faculty and ourselves to persevere in difficult times. Our interfaith chaplains come from Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Wiccan and Unitarian faith traditions.

“None of us is an island unto ourselves, we are all part of the whole, If something happens to another, it happens to me also, for we are all one people” (adapted)

Rev. Audrey Brooks, ’73 BEd, ’78 Dip(Ed), ’81 MEd, Unitarian chaplain, Interfaith Chaplains Association, 169D HUB Mall, 780-492-0339, interfaithchaplains@ualberta.ca

Your Saturday Morning Read

It’s Saturday morning, I’m sipping my coffee and reading your fall edition. I feel inspired, happy and grateful because I see all of the lovely faces in the article “Alumni Awards.” All of these BEAUTIFUL people making a difference in the world. How wonderful!

Also, I thought this edition was particularly attractive and well presented as far as visuals/graphics are concerned. Thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. Keep up the good work!

Pauline Johnson, ’78 BA, Falher, Alta.