I walk in the darkness

Poem by Meredith Graham, fourth-year Child and Youth Care Counselling student at Douglas College

I walk in the darkness and the light staying awake all night because the sights in my dreams bring despair unforeseen.

Can’t slip into deep sleep but sometimes don’t want to stay awake. Not here. Not now. Because… how?

Because my anxiety makes me sweaty and steals time from me. Steals me from you. Steals away what I thought I knew.

Because my bipolar disorder makes me both younger and older. Both weaker and bolder. Both a river and a boulder.

Because my obsessive compulsive disorder brings chaos and order. Brings glass walls and borders. Brings brick and mortar.

Because my ptsd wants to envelope me. Wants to debilitate me. Wants me to hate me.

Because my borderline personality disorder reminds me of my immense strength and sensitivity. Reminds me of a different reality. Reminds me that you are different from me and truly can’t understand and see my impulsivity and self-destructability. Reminds me of a fine line between psychosis and neurosis and how gross my soul is.

And inside all of this is my creativity. A beauty. A duty. A vulnerability. A strength and fragility. A responsibility. An ability.

To share my darkness and my light.

To fight with open hands, the strength of a raging river through the lands. To stand. And stumble and fumble through the words of mental health today. In some way.

These places – the anxiety, bp, bpd, ptsd, and ocd do not deserve the best of me. Or you.

Mental Health Symposium 2017

In the Philippines, where I grew up, mental health was often not the first thing that came up in conversations. Physical health, yes. But mental health, almost never. It was only after I moved to Vancouver in 2011 and found myself struggling with anxiety that I learned how real it was.

After my own experience with mental health, I was motivated to start learning more about it and to find ways of helping others who were grappling with it as well. In 2014, that came in the form of UBC’s Mental Health Symposium, which is an annual event that aims to give students practical tools and knowledge about mental health.

I stumbled upon the symposium at a resource fair, and was so excited to find an avenue to be able to learn from different people about mental health. I was expecting a day full of workshops, and discovered that the Mental Health Symposium was so much more than that. At the symposium, not only did I gain practical knowledge, but I also left feeling inspired by the individuals who shared their personal mental health challenges so openly and who were passionate about creating positive change.

Since then I have continued to find ways to get involved in community building, people-centered mental health initiatives. This work has continued to help me build community and inspiration at UBC.

This year, I am privileged to be able to co-chair the symposium that gave me so much three years ago. It gave me knowledge but also the reassurance that I was not alone in what I was experiencing. Now, It’s my turn to give back. With warmth and excitement, I invite you to:

What: The 2017 Mental Health Symposium

When: February 11th from 10am-5pm

Where: Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability.

The Mental Health Symposium is an annual event organized by students, for students. Through conversations, informative workshops, and inspiring speeches, the Mental Health Symposium 2017 aims to build a supportive community of people who are equipped to challenge stigma and inspired to promote mental health and wellness at UBC. Free breakfast and lunch will be provided. For more details on the workshops and to register visit: https://survey.ubc.ca/s/mentalhealthsymposium/

Post written by: Clarice Chan, Mental Health and Wellbeing Assistant and Naomi Schatz

The Friendliest Bench on Campus

It started with a “hello.”

This post involves a story that includes thoughts of suicide. You may be concerned that someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts. You may be thinking about suicide yourself. You are not alone. The most important thing you can do is reach out to give or get help.

“His smile did not convey what was going on inside.” – Sam Fiorella (Co-Founder of the Lucas Fiorella Friendship Bench and Suicide Survivor)

It is Wednesday, November 23, 2016. The rain that has started overnight continue to drench the campus in a layer of misty gray. The last remnants of autumn falls quickly, blending together under the feet of students in a mosaic of reds, browns, and fading oranges. Seats are sparse in Irving K Barber, and the lineup for coffee slowly diminishes as people began to make their way to the bus loop or back to residence. It is a typical day on campus, but somehow, something looks different.

A little yellow bench now stands in front of a familiar building. This new addition to campus, the Friendship Bench, serves as a permanent, physical, and year-round reminder to students to take a moment out of their day to reflect upon their mental health. The bench is meant to inspire peer-to-peer conversations about mental health, to reduce stigma and encourage students facing challenges to reach out for help.

This year, UBC will be unveiling the Friendship Bench on November 23 to pledge our support for mental health awareness and encourage individuals to reach out for help. UBC welcomes everyone to attend the unveiling on November 23, 2016 from noon to 1:30pm in the Brock Hall Concourse. The event includes free food, a chance to chat, and messages of hope.


The Lucas Fiorella Friendship Bench

Lucas Fiorella was a Canadian student who always made the effort to reach out to other students whom he sensed were struggling with  depression or anxiety. Each conversation started out with a “hello,” and with this “hello” Lucas gave his peers the courage to open up about their challenges to family members or professionals.

Tragically, Lucas Fiorella took his own life in October 2014, after quietly suffering from depression for a number of years.  

Inspired by his efforts, the Lucas Fiorella Friendship Bench Organization seeks to decrease and eventually reduce suicides and suicide attempts by encouraging peer-to-peer conversation to reduce the stigma around mental health. The organization also aims to connect students with on-campus and community mental health resources, and educate students and parents about the various forms of mental illness to increase awareness for mental health.

For more information about the organization and their work, please visit: TheFriendshipBench.org.


If you need help for yourself or you are concerned about someone else, please reach out.

UBC Vancouver Campus Resources

UBC Counselling Services
604-822-3811  |   Brock Hall 1874 East Mall Room 1040


Lower Mall Research Station  |   2259 Lower Mall Room 358

Emergency and after-hours contacts:

Vancouver Crisis Line: 1-800-784-2433
Vancouver General Hospital: 604-875-4995
Campus Security: 604-822-2222 
Emergency Services: 911

It can be easy to feel small on a campus so big, but we can all do our part to make connections and build a community. By saying hello and encouraging empathetic conversations about mental health, we can all play an important role in making it okay to reach out.

Post Written by Kleo Fang

My Gap Year Journey

Sunset in Venice, Italy.

Three years ago today, I was a second year undergraduate just finishing up my final round of assignments and term papers for the semester. Reading break had come and gone and it was like a breath of much-needed fresh air… but it was over much too soon. I had been having troubles figuring out what I wanted to do with my time at UBC, and my sense of purpose was slowly slipping away. It was starting to take a huge toll on my grades, and I felt exhausted, unmotivated, powerless, and overwhelmed. I had developed bad eating habits and I didn’t have time to do the things that I actually enjoyed. I was, in essence, going through academic burnout.

At the time, the thought of taking a year off would have been unthinkable to me. I had huge dreams and goals, and wasn’t going to let some negative feelings set me back an entire year. I didn’t want to feel like a failure. I didn’t want to be thought of as the college dropout, no matter how silly that might seem. I told myself to power through, even though I knew (and my body knew) that I really, really needed a break. Continue reading “My Gap Year Journey”

Recent UBC grad shares perspectives on mental health

Photo credit: Joshua Beharry

Everyone has mental health and some face challenges related to mental illness. UBC students are no exception, with depression reported as one of the most common mental health concerns.

Joshua Beharry, a recent UBC graduate, just launched a website to share his first-person perspective on mental health. Josh’s stories and essays touch on a variety of topics like depression, anxiety, stigma, and recovery.

I asked Josh a few questions to learn more about the new site and how it might help others think about and explore their own mental health.

C. What is Mental Health Point of View?

J. MHPOV (Mental Health Point of View) shares my experiences with anxiety, depression, and attempted suicide. MHPOV aims to provide a comprehensive look at mental illness and mental health from a first person point of view. Continue reading “Recent UBC grad shares perspectives on mental health”

Groups at Counselling Services: What are they, and why try them?

Post by Shahbano Bhatti, third-year Psychology student and Counselling Services Assistant

I’ve always been curious as to how group counselling works,  so I decided to interview Margaret Drewlo, (M.A., Pre-Doctoral Intern,) at Counselling Services to find out more about these programs.

Me: What group programs does Counselling Services offers?

Margaret: We have three groups running on Wednesday evenings:

Mindfulness Stress Management is a group for students who want to develop skills to cope effectively with negative emotions, tolerate distress and develop healthy relationships.

Anxiety Management is a group for students who experience anxiety symptoms physically or cognitively and want to find a long-term solution to manage these symptoms.

Mood Management is a group for students to reduce and manage symptoms of depression.

Students meet with a counsellor prior to determining which resources will be helpful in addressing their concerns and are then referred appropriately.

Me: What is the benefit of attending a group session? Continue reading “Groups at Counselling Services: What are they, and why try them?”

Counselling Services: You’re not in it alone

Guest post by UBC students Navi Dasanjh and Shahbano Bhatti

University – a place of excitement, adventure, learning, and growth. While the university experience can be filled with wonder and joy, it undoubtedly also has its perils (helllooo, midterm season).

Throughout this time, no matter how daunting your school/work/personal life my feel, always remember to take a step back and have some time to yourself. Also remember that you’re not in it alone – there are numerous campus resources to help you through whatever rough patch you may be facing.

Getting through personal difficulties

Counselling Services is one of these resources. Free to all registered UBC students, Counselling Services is a group of trained professionals available to chat, listen, and help you through any personal difficulties you may be facing.

Helpful tips from Vanita Sabharwal, Counsellor

We sat down with one of the counsellors, Vanita Sabharwal, to learn more about her work and get some helpful tips.

Continue reading “Counselling Services: You’re not in it alone”

Antidepressant Series: Post 4 – Side Effects and Sense of Self

This is an interesting time for me to reflect on medication side effects because I am currently weaning myself off of a medication, under doctor supervision, because I am unhappy with a particular side effect….weight gain.

I am on a cocktail of medications, as many people with bipolar depression are.  It is difficult to know what side effect can be attributed to what medication, and it is often a trial and error process to find a mix that works just right.  The main decision I’ve had to seriously think on is do the negative effects of the medication outweigh the positive?  It is not an easy decision.

There are two side effects which have majorly impacted my life.  Loss of focus and creativity and, as I already mentioned, weight gain.  Some side effects can be temporary and some longer term, but you can’t necessarily know which category your side effects will fit into until they play out.

When I first started anti-depressant and mood stabilizing medication, I felt an instant drain on my focus and creativity.  I was already feeling a strain in those areas due to a bout of severe depression, but the medication added (or perhaps removed?) an extra dimension.

Like many people focus and creativity are the things that define my sense of self.  The idea of never being able to sit down and read a good novel, write a blog post, and not being able to participate fully in my academic career, seemed devastating.

Luckily the side effect was temporary and manageable by slight tweaks to my medication dosages.  The key for me was being completely honest with my doctor about how I felt and how important it was to me to figure out a way to be on medication and maintain my focus and creativity.  It took time, but sure and steady the fuzz began to leave my head and I was back to reading and writing just as I had even before I’d fallen ill.

Weight gain is another battle for me.  Weight gain is a side effect for 3 of the 4 medications I take, so I didn’t have much of a chance to skip it. The truth is that much as we war against it, our bodies represent us.  I gained 50 pounds in the first 6 months I was on my original medication cocktail.  It has almost been 2 years and I haven’t lost a pound.

Maintaining a sensible diet and exercising are important even if you aren’t experiencing weight gain due to medication, and perhaps even more so if you are dealing with depression.  We all know, however, that depression saps your motivation to do either.

I’ve been slowly adding on manageable changes to my lifestyle, like hopping on the treadmill while I am reading articles for class.  I’ve found speed walking can burn off lots of calories especially on a treadmill where you can raise the incline.  I got a crock pot and have been making lots of low-fat soups and stews rather than buying food on campus everyday.

The problem with weight gain due to medication however is that you can eat less and exercise more and still not achieve a desired weight.  It can be FRUSTRATING!  So enters the decision to wean off one of the biggest weight gain culprits, a drug that has been helping me to sleep but is of the anti-psychotic family.  I was never meant to be on it long term anyway.

I didn’t sleep last night, so I’m going to go back up in dose and try again in a few days.  Like I mentioned before, getting the medication balance is a long and difficult process, but hopefully in the end the benefits of my medication will outweigh the negative side effects.

Even more hopefully, I am waiting eagerly for new drugs to be developed that won’t have such uneven side effect profiles.  It may seem easy for someone who isn’t experiencing side effects to value the drugs that are reducing the symptoms of depression, but for those of us who are experiencing side effects the issue isn’t so cut and dry.  The whole point of seeking treatment is to strive toward living a healthier and happier life.  If side effects get in the way of that goal, it can seem counter-productive and can be very disheartening.

I commend all of you out there who are being brave enough to stay on your  meds and continue the difficult journey toward wellness despite the setbacks of medication side effects.  I know it is sometimes a hard decision to remain on that path.

For more information about antidepressants and some great resources check out this post Demystifying Antidepresants 1 that is a part of our series on Antidepressants.


Demystifying Antidepressants Series: Post 3

Everyone gets the blues sometimes, myself included. In a stressful university setting, especially situated in rainy Vancouver, feeling down every once and a while is natural. But there is a difference between a day or two of melancholy and a seriously lengthy slump.

Depression is a term that is often used but rarely understood. Especially among university students, depression is frequently viewed negatively as a condition representing isolation and personal failure. Even less properly understood are the benefits, side effects and situations in which antidepressants could be used as treatments for serious depression.

Over the next few weeks, the Healthy Minds team will be featuring interviews from a counsellor, pharmacist, physician and a student in an attempt to alleviate some of the stigma associated with depression and antidepressant usage.

The first part of the series here features an interview with Natalie DeFreitas, a staff member and Registered Clinical Counsellor with UBC Counselling Services:

1.     Are antidepressants an “easy way out” from facing your problems?

No single form of treatment can be seen as a panacea or “golden key” for treating depression. Research shows that depending on the person’s unique experiences, a combination of approaches, including counselling, self care/lifestyle changes and pharmacological treatments, have the best results. The good news is that there are successful treatments for depression out there. I would not consider any treatment of depression “an easy way out”; each person experiences their emotions differently, therefore, there is an adjustment period for each person as they find out what treatment approach works best for them. All approaches will require some patience, commitment and resiliency from the individual.

2.     Can you “snap out” of depression?

Depression can be complex and occurs for many reasons, some contextual and some biological, social, or psychological. Therefore, it’s unrealistic to expect to be able to “snap out” of it. That said, reaching out for help early on can assist an individual in getting back on track faster. There are many supports out there for people struggling with symptoms of depression and an abundance of research demonstrating success in the treatment of depression. With the right treatment and supports in place, positive outcomes can occur in a short period of time.

3.     Do antidepressants change your personality?

There is no evidence that antidepressants change people’s core personality, however, as each person is different they may experience different effects. There are many effective antidepressants today, and we encourage students to work closely and transparently with their doctor to monitor the possible side effects of medication and learn more about each treatment. Doctors work diligently to provide psychoeducation, monitor dosage and connect the person to different approaches as necessary. As with any form of treatment, sustainable change requires some patience and resiliency.

4.     Are antidepressants the only solution to depression?

Depression is linked to a combination of biological, social, psychological and environmental influences, so therefore, there is no single “solution” to depression. Healthy sleep, eating and exercise habits, psychotherapy, and anti-depressant medication have all been shown to be effective for treating depression. When a person experiences depression it effects their wellness in multiple ways, therefore it is important to attend to one’s social, physical, spiritual, and mental wellbeing. Although it may seem difficult at first, introducing changes to one or more of theseareas may kick-start positive thoughts and feelings, reversing the cycle of depression. If a person is considering the use of antidepressants, we  encourage them to be an active health care consumer and speak with a doctor about any concerns they might have.

5.     Where do you think stigma surrounding antidepressants come from, what can be done about it?

Stigma often prevents people from reaching out for help. Stigma regarding depression and treatment for depression can arise from the expectations that one “should” be able to handle mood swings on their own and/or that receiving treatment for depression means failure to manage on one’s own. In actuality, reaching out for help in any form takes a great deal of strength, self-awareness and resiliency. It’s important to tell yourself the same things you’d tell a friend going through something similar – that help is available and  it’s ok to reach out. Remember that anyone can experience mental health difficulties; in fact, 1 in 5 Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime. The more we talk about it, the more we learn that we’re not alone and the more likely we are to overcome stigma and find support. Remember that asking for help early on will make it easier to get back on track.

6.     What are helpful resources to consult for someone who suffers from depression?

If you think you may be dealing with some symptoms of depression, it is important to reach out and seek help. UBC Counselling Services provides assessment and referral to specialized individual and groups programs for individuals struggling with depression as well as referral to UBC Student Health Services for assessment for antidepressant medication. SpeakEasy and Kaleidoscope are also great resources for students to receive support from peers.  For after hours crisis support, call the Crisis Line  24/7 at 1-800-SUICIDE. Reaching out to friends, family and/or professional support helps create the connections that build resiliency.

Do you have questions or thoughts about depression and treatment? Feel free to leave a comment!

Photo: http://turningpointcounselling.yolasite.com/resources/reachoutstock_grayscale-1.gif




Antidepressants Series: Post 2 – Pharmacist’s Perspective

This blog post was written with the help of my brother, a practicing pharmacist in Ontario.  While it is meant to be interview-style, the responses are not direct quotations.  Thus, any factual errors that may have slipped through are the fault of my rewording.  If you need any clarifications, ask your local pharmacist.

How do antidepressants work?

Antidepressants work by adjusting the “balance” of neurotransmitters in the brain.  Neurotransmitters are the chemicals the brain uses to communicate.  Everyone has fluctuating levels of neurotransmitters and some people are genetically predisposed to lower (on average) levels of certain neurotransmitters.  The lower levels of neurotransmitters are linked to depression.

In particular, antidepressants function to increase the levels of serotonin, dopamine and/or norepinephrine in the brain.  Serotonin contributes to feelings of well-being and happiness, dopamine plays a role in reward-driven learning, and norepinephrine effects alertness, arousal and the reward system.  Neurotransmitters are constantly being turned over, and one method employed by antidepressants to increase their levels is to slow this turnover so they remain active for longer.

Are all antidepressants the same?

No.  The term antidepressants generally refers to several classes of drugs.  They can separated into two categories: old generation and new generation.  The old generation antidepressants are less selective in terms of which neurotransmitters they effect in comparison to new generation antidepressants.  However, they can be a good option for some people.  New generation antidepressants such as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are most commonly prescribed as they have a favourable side-effect profile and low toxicity.

What are some side effects of antidepressants?

The side effects depend on the particular type of antidepressant used.  Some possible side effects are: decreased sexual function, dry mouth and drowsiness.  However, not everyone will experience these side effects as they are dose dependent.  Old generation antidepressants have more dangerous side effects associated with them.

Are antidepressants addictive?

An individual can become dependent on antidepressants, because the brain cells have altered their biochemistry and taking the chemical away all of a sudden can be problematic.  Withdrawal symptoms are possible if treatment is stopped abruptly.  However, there is an important distinction between “addiction” and “dependence”.  Addiction implies that an individual is behaving in a harmful way, despite negative consequences. It is possible that someone could become addicted to antidepressants, in the way that someone could become addicted to playing video games, but there is nothing inherently addictive about them.  Since they are more often beneficial than harmful, classifying them as addictive is incorrect.

Do you have any insight about where the stigma surrounding antidepressants comes from?  What can people do to help remove this stigma?

The focus should not be about reducing the stigma surrounding antidepressants, but rather the stigma surrounding mental health.  Antidepressants are an option of therapy for some people experiencing a number of psychological issues which can be effective, particularly when paired with psychotherapy.  While this is a question better addressed by say, a sociologist, something people can do to remove stigma surrounding mental health is to inform themselves.  Individuals should be more open-minded and take time to learn about mental health issues before judging.

More resources on antidepressants:

Pharmacist refilling prescription

Antidepressants Series: Post 1

Antidepressants are the number one prescribed drug in the US and are also commonly prescribed in Canada.  Even though such a large group of people take antidepressants, they rarely come up in conversation.  Perhaps this isn’t surprising as mental health issues in general are taboo, but the silence surrounding antidepressants has led to many misconceptions.

In an effort to help clear up some of these misconceptions, as well as to personally educate ourselves, Health Promotion Strategists at Healthy Minds decided to interview a professional to shed some light on antidepressants.  When it became apparent that the topic was too complex to be adequately be covered from one perspective, we decided to have four – three professionals and one student.

In the coming month, we will be releasing our interviews with a pharmacist, a physician and a counsellor as well as a personal reflection from a student who has taken antidepressants.  Hopefully these posts will be effective myth busters and get people talking about mental health.  Enjoy this first post and come back to us in a few days for the next round!

Post #2: Pharmacist’s perspective

Shedding Light on Winter Blues

Winter can be a real drag.  The last signs of summer are blown away in the blustery wind and pelted by the chilled rain that reminds us of the wet winter to come.  The days are noticeably shorter as we load onto the bus, returning home from class in the dreary dark, our umbrellas at our sides like swords ready for battle.

Weather can certainly affect our moods.  Just like mid-terms, the winter blues can sneak up on us, but what are the “winter blues”, really?  The Canadian Mental Health Association considers the winter blues a mild form of SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder, “a type of depression that follows seasonal patterns” (Canadian Mental Health Association – Seasonal Affective Disorder).  SAD is unlike the winter blues or “blahs” because it occurs every year and the symptoms can severely disrupt your life.

Sketchartists describe the symptoms of SAD with a lighter tone in their video:  S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder)

YouTube Preview Image

SAD is very similar to major clinical depression and affects up to 3% of Canadians.  (Canadian Mental Health Association – Seasonal Affective Disorder)  This can be attributed to Canada’s dark winters.  Due to this close connection to sunlight, artificial light therapy has been developed to alleviate the symptoms of SAD. For those with severe symptoms light therapy is often used in conjunction with cognitive therapy and medication. (CBC January 2008)

According to Psychology Today, “upwards of 65% of patients experience marked relief of symptoms, and most do so within days of starting [light therapy treatment].” (Psychology Today September 2002) Other research shows that light therapy is, “estimated to be effective in up to 80 per cent of cases”. (CBC January 2008)

I have learned that people like me, who suffer from non-seasonal mood disorders, also feel the weight of winter and are susceptible to experiencing SAD concurrently. Knowing this, I wanted to be ready for my seasonal symptoms this year.

A few weeks ago I began using a a light therapy lamp, or light box.  According to the manufacturer, Day Light , 30 minutes has the same effect as a bright summer day.   I am still guarded over the results.  I feel that I am more motivated to start my day after each session, but I am going to explore having the light on for more than 30 minutes at a time.  My mood isn’t the same as it was in summer.  Not yet.

I also take vitamin D, Omega-3, and vitamin B complex supplements on a daily basis, and have dedicated myself to 3 exercise classes at my community centre each week (Strengh & Stretch, Cardio-Kickboxing, and Reformer Pilates).  I’ve found that pilates is a great way to ease my anxiety as I am forced to focus closely on my muscle movements.  This takes my focus away from any negative thoughts that start to intrude as the days get darker.

If you think that you may be suffering from SAD, make an appointment at Student Health Services to talk to a medical doctor about your symptoms and treatment options.