When associate professor Norm O’Rourke wanted to introduce the topic of mental illness stigma to his Psychology 106 course (Surrey campus), he went straight to the source.

He asked his colleague Victoria Maxwell to bring her one-woman show, That’s Just Crazy Talk, into the classroom. Maxwell is an actor and educator who lives with Bipolar Disorder (BD).

During her riveting 40-minute performance you could hear a pin drop. Maxwell starkly—and humorously—depicted the ‘lived experience’ of life with BD, hospitalization, recovery and stigma.

This term, O’Rourke is experimenting with a variety of teaching techniques to bring life to his passion: mental illness awareness and treatment. Later in the term representatives from Alcoholics Anonymous, the Alzheimer Society, and a colleague with post-traumatic stress disorder (an Afghanistan veteran) will also speak to his students.

“My goal is to help people have a better understanding and empathy for people who live with the challenges of mental illness,” says O’Rourke, who is a clinical psychologist.

“And three hours of listening to me lecture isn’t the best way.”

SFU launches new initiative to counter stigma

O’Rourke’s teaching techniques fit well with SFU’s Mental Health Strategy.

“The goals are to make SFU a place that is supportive of mental health for students, staff and faculty, and eliminate stigma,” says Erika Horwitz, associate director of counselling at Health and Counselling Services (HCS).

“That includes everything from the campus environment and how classes are taught to prevention and intervention.”

Horwitz has spent the past four years working with a provincial group of post-secondary professionals to develop initiatives that can encourage change not only at SFU but also on campuses throughout B.C.

Give us a Hi F.I.V.E.

This month HCS launched Hi F.I.V.E., an initiative that invites the SFU campus community to alter negative attitudes and behaviours towards anyone who is currently experiencing or has a history of mental health distress.

“It’s a social marketing approach,” says Horwitz. “We want to encourage a spirit of friendship, kindness and compassion for everyone.”

There’s a new website that features information, videos and campaign materials for downloading, and soon student peer and leadership programs will include training in eliminating stigma.

“Some enthusiastic students, calling themselves the Hi FIVErs, will be running outreaches, events and advocacy initiatives,” says Horwitz.

They’ll also be distributing a series of ‘traveling diaries’ at all three campuses as an encouragement for people to start a conversation by writing their stories about mental health.

Horwitz invites everyone on campus to embrace the Hi F.I.V.E. initiative.

“We have buttons for students’ backpacks, and logos for staff and faculty to put on their doors indicating their readiness to support those who have mental health issues.”

While Horwitz hopes that the Hi F.I.V.E. logo of a friendly hand will one day be as recognizable as a rainbow, she’d really love to see SFU students, staff and faculty extend their own hand to those suffering mental health distress.

“Just as Victoria Matthews is doing her part to change the way people think of mental health issues and illness, SFU is taking the lead among Canadian post-secondary institutions.”


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