Supporting one another

DSU launches mental health peer support initiative

- November 14, 2013

Laura Burke, coordinator of the Mental Health Peer Support initaitive. (Bruce Bottomley photo)
Laura Burke, coordinator of the Mental Health Peer Support initaitive. (Bruce Bottomley photo)

Everyone needs a safe space to share.

That's the spirit driving the new mental health peer support program from the Dalhousie Student Union.

"Peer support is about sustaining ourselves, and our mental health, on a regular basis," explains Laura Burke, coordinator of the Mental Health Peer Support initiative.

"Everyone experiences some sort of mental health concern or lack of mental wellness at some time; the line we draw between 'illness' and 'normal' can seem random and arbitrary. So it's important to provide avenues for people to support each other, rather than relying exclusively on professional support through the health-care system."

The initiative's core is a support group that is meeting weekly starting this fall. But it also includes a bi-weekly speaker series and other activities and events through the academic year. Some of the ideas in the works range from a mental health art show to activities focused on managing exam stress. They also hope to train interested students with lived experience to support other students through the provincial standard Peer Support Specialist Training.

Breaking down the stigma

Burke, whose background is in creative arts therapy, comes at mental health from both a professional and personal perspective: she shares that when she was younger, she faced mental health issues at university, and knows first-hand how important it is to have peers there to listen, encourage and offer support.

"There is so much stigma for people who experience mental health concerns, and people often internalize that stigma," she says. "We're looking to create a safe space for people to talk about these topics, to be vulnerable, to not feel like they have to be 'put together' all the time."

She also feels that universities, as a meeting place for different perspectives from around the world, are an ideal place to tackle that stigma.

"I hope it gives students who otherwise wouldn't feel comfortable adjusting to a possible mental health concern at university to gain a sense of self-confidence and support," says Burke. "I hope we can create a real community, that we have a space we can be in and not have to be quiet.

"People have been taking care of each other since the beginning of time. Although professionalized support can be important, I think that a move toward helping each other in the community wherever possible does a great deal to reduce stigma, normalize mental health concerns, and foster resiliency. I also hope our initiative can work to increase mental health literacy on campus."

The program began its rollout with a number of activities in September and October, but is now fully up-and-running. The group meets at South House on Wednesday evenings from 7 to 9 p.m. The first hour is set aside for mental peer health support, with the second hour open to everyone (including allies) with speakers and/or planning activities. To learn more visit the program's website:


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