April 3, 2019

'I didn't want to just leave her there alone'

Staff and student volunteers share their advice on helping a student in distress

Every day, Shakera Swizdaryk cuts through the Arts Parkade to get to her car after work. One sunny afternoon in late September was no different, until she encountered a student in significant distress.

“She was crying so hard, and it was obvious something was really wrong,” says Swizdaryk. “I didn’t know what to do, but I didn’t want to just leave her there alone.”

Swizdaryk, web communications specialist with Student and Enrolment Services, called Campus Security, who accompanied the student to Student Wellness Services to talk to a counsellor. “I was happy she could talk to someone who knows how to help,” she says.

Staff and faculty can always suggest a student visit Student Wellness Services for support, but not all issues require counselling. For a student who is lonely, isolated or dealing with stress, frustration or sadness, talking to someone who understands what they’re going though can help.

The power of peer listening

Mikayla Gray, a fifth-year biochemistry student in the Faculty of Science, volunteers in UCalgary’s peer listening program. She feels the program is a great option for staff and faculty to recommend to anyone looking for someone to talk to about the challenges of being a student.

“Peer listening is for anyone. You do not have to be in crisis or really have anything specific that you want to discuss,” says Gray. “We’re here to provide informal support and conversation on basically any topic in a non-judgmental setting.”

Gray explains that even though peer listeners are student volunteers, they undergo training in active listening, mental health and on-campus resources and supports.

“Some examples include suicide intervention training, workshops on mental wellness, active listening workshops, and learning about the unique experiences of international students,” she says.

Brandon Huynh, first-year biological sciences student and peer listening volunteer, emphasizes that students can talk to peer listeners about a variety of topics.  

“It could be casual or serious conversation, support during a tough conflict, or just a simple chat to ease loneliness,” Huynh says. “You could just want to rant about something, but peer listeners are happy to listen. We really don't want people to overthink the whole thing — but to feel welcome.”

Peer Listeners Brandon Huynh and Meghan Muller volunteer together at the Well, a space dedicated to promoting student health and well-being on campus.

Peer Listeners Brandon Huynh and Meghan Muller volunteer together at the Well.

Huynh also volunteers at the Campus Community Hub. During the weekly Board Game Café event, an international student dropped in. Despite a language barrier, Huynh showed him how to play the games and talked to him about other informal supports on campus like peer listening. 

“He seemed very interested in it, but I was still caught with unexpected surprise and joy to see him actually show up for peer listening the following week while I was on shift,” says Huynh. “I felt that he really valued our services, and it made me feel good that we could be there to offer them.”

Peer Listeners are available in the Well (MacEwan Student Centre 373) weekdays from 2 to 4 p.m.

Helping a student in distress

Kome Odoko, student at risk support adviser, is a registered nurse with a background in psychiatry. Odoko is the first dedicated support adviser for the Student at Risk (SAR) team. If a student is at risk of self-harm or harming others, or is in significant distress, you can contact the SAR team; a team member will contact the student, offering support on campus or within the community.

Anyone can bring up a concern to SAR. Odoko explains that their primary goal is to receive concerns and provide outreach: “A lot of reports come from informal conversations where a student may break down in a prof’s office saying ‘I’m feeling super overwhelmed,’ 'Things aren’t going well for me,’ or ‘I’m not really sure what to do,’ and then the professor contacts me,” she says.

“Parents will call if they can’t get ahold of their child, or they have concerns about their safety,” she continues. “Students have come in and chatted with me about a friend because they’re not sure how to support them, or they feel unable to handle the responsibility of this person’s well-being.”

Odoko stresses there is never a wrong situation to contact the Student at Risk team. If you feel you don’t have the skills to support a student, getting SAR involved is a good next step. 

“We can do a quick consultation to find out what skills you have and what supports you need. It becomes pretty clear whether you have the capacity to support the student or if we need to take over,” she says.

If you’re interested in building your resilience and capacity to support students, Student Wellness Services offers training including: Community Helpers; Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR); and Safer Substance Use: Harm Reduction 101.

If a student is in distress when Student Wellness Services is closed, they can call the after-hours line at 403-210-9355 and be connected with the Distress Centre or Wood’s Homes.