Sept. 10, 2021

Explore how you can support yourself and your community while adjusting to return-to-campus change

Dr. Keith Dobson answers key questions about mental health and self-care for UCalgary students and faculty
Ewan Nicholson

During this year’s Summer Wellness Series, Dr. Keith Dobson, PhD, a professor of clinical psychology and Depression Research Lab lead at the University of Calgary, evaluated the current challenges related to mental health on post-secondary campuses in the context of COVID-19, and discussed how we can support ourselves and our community while adjusting to change.

In a conversation with Dobson, we dove into some of these current topics he talked about during his presentation.

How do we understand our mental health functioning?

Health Canada describes mental health as, “the capacity to feel, think and act in ways that enhance one’s ability to enjoy life and deal with challenges.” Within this framework, mental health includes feeling healthy and well, being able to achieve personal goals, feeling a strong sense of social connection, and coping with difficulty that arises in daily life.

When one’s mental health starts to decline, a multitude of things can happen. These can include trouble sleeping or eating, difficulty concentrating and focusing, feeling “moody” or irritable, and/or the inability to cope with stressors. Other signs and symptoms can also appear and may be short-term … or may become more long-lasting and even chronic.

To combat poor mental health, I encourage engaging in positive coping strategies and self-care, and through accessing resources.

What are some of the most prevalent mental disorders that we are seeing?

If mental health problems become significant, an individual may meet the diagnostic criteria for a mental disorder. Such an assessment requires a specialist, such as a physician or psychologist to make this determination, but recent studies indicate that the most prevalent mental disorders on university campuses are anxiety related, with 16.6 per cent of university students feeling this way. We are also seeing high rates of depression and panic attacks at the top of the list.

    Keith Dobson

    Keith Dobson

    What anxious thoughts have been circulating surrounding the return to campus?

    There are three major factors that contribute to stress, worry and anxiety when considering the return to campus:

    • Unpredictability: People generally become more stressed if they have a vague sense of something “bad” that may happen, but its nature, timing or impact is unknown.
    • Uncontrollability: People become more stressed, even if they know what negative event may occur, when they perceive that they have few or ineffective strategies to respond to or control the event.
    • High importance: The more important an event, the more people pay attention to it and the greater the impact it can have. Outcomes such as inability to study or work, loss of income, and illness are typically all seen as having high importance.

    With COVID-19, all three of these factors are at play. We should expect an increase in anxiety in the return to school and work.

    How do we take care of ourselves when our mental health is struggling?

    Tuning in to our needs is one of the most important aspects of going through periods of feeling unwell. Each person has their own preferred strategies (for self-care), and not all strategies will work for every situation, but some common effective ideas include:

    • Body and physical energy: Getting regular and sufficient sleep, stocking up on healthy foods, staying hydrated, regular aerobic exercise (e.g. walking, running, cycling, swimming).
    • Emotional awareness: Take note of how you are feeling, monitoring your self-talk and possibly challenging negative ideas; practice deep-breathing.
    • Focus: Reduce multi-tasking, prioritize important work first; turn off electronics an hour before bed.
    • Meaning and purpose: Find what energizes you, develop life priorities and act consistent with your values and goals; take entitled days off.

    Need to talk to someone? Support is always available with these UCalgary resources:

    Students/Peer Support

    Faculty and staff

    Dr. Keith Dobson's recorded webinar for the Summer Wellness Series

    The University of Calgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy is a bold commitment to the importance of mental health and well-being of our university family. Our vision is to be a community where we care for each other, learn and talk about mental health and well-being, receive support as needed, and individually and collectively realize our full potential. Learn more about the strategy here.