How I fought mental health at the university: A personal experience

By: Dez Kamara

When I was growing up, my teachers would remind us of the Latin quote “mens sana in corpore san,” translating to “a sound mind in a sound body.” 

There is a plethora of ways to explain or describe mental health. I am not a mental health specialist, but I specialized in my mental health experiences while attending the University of Lethbridge. It involved emotional and psychological illnesses. Neuroscientists tell us everyone has a cognitive reserve, which is the ability of the brain to find ways to cope with life’s changes creatively. As university students, we have high cognitive reserves because we can switch from task to task and prioritize in our brains. It was not a benign feeling when I was affected by mental health; a feeling that I cannot deal with alone. When we are overwhelmed by many things in our lives and unable to cope, it may result in mental health issues.

Mental health awareness has become an essential thing today and a phenomenon in our daily lives. My experience is that stress and anxiety are products of mental health and constantly knock on our doors. Studying to pass exams at university when your cognition is distorted or engulfed with stressors looks like climbing the highest mountain on a hot summer day. By and large, when we do not take care of our well-being, it could lead to a decline in our mental health. 

Every student generally has one thing in mind: pursue a university education, specialize in trade or vocational training, and achieve educational accomplishments to pay bills, buy a home, travel, etc. All of these require hard work, dedication, support, and focus. Nevertheless, even if you have the best focus and support, nothing can be achieved if your mind is not well.

Some of us left our families in Canada to attend school for the first time. Others, like me, left our countries to attend school.

These ventures come with many anxieties, trepidations and stress coupled with cultural, climatic, environmental and linguistic challenges. The million-dollar question is, how do we cope with all these stressful and mental challenges at university? As university students, we are told daily that we must focus and study hard to pass our courses, a trajectory to achieving education and a career. We are not often told, including me, to take care of our mental health or the phrase “self-care.” We have many ways and methods to try and care for ourselves. Sing, paint, art, join various activities/clubs and do the things we love. All these measures are ways to maintain our mental health.  

I arrived from Sierra Leone at the University of Lethbridge. Everything was different compared to my home country. The good thing for me was that the language was not a challenge because English is also the official language in my country. I went to class every day, was never late, studied hard and did my homework all the time. What about my mental health? I never paid attention to it. I never actually thought about mental health or my mental well-being. As a Sierra Leonean, mental health was not front and center growing up. However, thousands of people are affected by it. We had services for mental health in Sierra Leone. However, services were underfunded, and the quality was not up to scratch, making it hard to know that mental health was a priority. After arriving in Canada, I struggled with mental health because I did not know how to deal with or manage it.

During the civil war in Sierra Leone (1991-2003), there was only one psychiatrist for the entire country, Dr. Nahim. A population of around 4.5 million at the time.  Having one mental health specialist for that population is eye-popping. Things have improved. However, I do not know how many mental health doctors and professionals we have now. You can see how I tried to deal with my mental health struggles independently. To whom would I explain how I was feeling in Canada? I could not explain what was wrong with me to begin. The thought of asking someone to help me was a non-starter. Mental health was not a priority growing up. Thankfully, things have improved today, but there is a long way to go.

I woke up at -36 C on a cold winter morning in mid-January, including the windchill. I realized I was feeling unwell, but not physically. It was not an illness that warranted me to go to the hospital. I was not feeling well but could not pinpoint what the issue was. Then I started having trouble sleeping and overthinking schoolwork and the family I left behind. If anything should happen to me, what would I do? Thoughts I had never experienced before came to my mind, and I stayed awake for hours in bed until daybreak. In the middle of the night, I would go to the kitchen and open the fridge, but I didn’t need anything from it. I could not read or study. This new behaviour went on for a week and a half. I went to class like everything was normal.

One day in class, a close professor noticed I was not talking, especially when I sat in the front and always contributed. At the end of the class, she invited me to see her in her office. I reluctantly went to see her on the fourth floor of UHall. I waited in the area overlooking the coulees from the west side of Lethbridge, a scene that always calms me down because of its fantastic view. However, the beautiful coulees could not offer me help at that time, and my mind was unexplainably elsewhere. After she was free from another student, she invited me in. 

I entered the office, closed the door, and immediately burst into tears. I felt ashamed to divulge personal feelings. She noticed something wrong with me and wanted to do a check-in or a “wellness check.” Wellness checks are vital for our well-being. Whether you are a student or not, doing a wellness check on friends and family members is important. 

After realizing I was struggling mentally, my professor did not proceed with any clinical conversation. If she was a therapist, she might consider offering me a person-centred approach as part of helping me focus on myself. But she was a professor of Anthropology, and one thing she understood clearly was the peculiar culture I was participating in. Instead, she picked up the phone and called the counselling department at the university for help. Furthermore, as I was an international student, she called the International Student Center (ISC). She informed the manager what was happening and that she should facilitate withdrawing two of my courses, leaving me enrolled in two. 

Following that call, I saw a counsellor for four weeks, with two weekly sessions. It was clear that something was not going well with my mental well-being. The counsellor reminded me to become aware of my surroundings as part of the therapy. Environmental factors are critical to our mental health. What was also bombarding me was that I feared asking anyone for help because of the fear of rejection. Rejection is an enemy of mental health, particularly when I need help but fear I will be rejected. I was withdrawn and did not participate in anything in and out of school. At work, everything seemed normal on the outside, but on the inside, I was struggling.

Whether you are a local or international student, mental health is a paddle break in our lives and asking for help is necessary as a first step to addressing it. It would be best if you did not get near where I was when I almost crashed because of my mental health. The university is now the primary family we turn to for help, and it has many resources to ensure students succeed. Seeking help from the university is necessary not only academically but for our mental well-being. I believe more mental health resources have been added at the University of Lethbridge than when I was there. Do not be afraid to ask for help. I don’t know what would have happened to me if my professor did not intervene in my situation. All we need to do is talk to someone. I displayed maladaptive behaviours such as withdrawal and avoidance. I failed to see that I was not the issue, so I blamed myself. One does not choose to have their cognition distorted voluntarily. 

When we start to inhibit abnormal behaviours that impede our daily well-being, we need to ask for help. We cannot take care of our mental health alone. The university takes the health of all students seriously because they want every student to succeed. Asking may be challenging, as it was for me. Self-care can begin with asking for help. One person cannot fight mental health, it requires a team, and the university has the team to help us with mental health. Therefore, ASK for help. 

A sound mind in a sound body.

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