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Tiffany Beks takes the lead on student mental health

“We often fear judgment, but mental illness isn’t something to be embarrassed about because so many people deal with it on a daily basis. There is nothing to be ashamed of and students need to feel comfortable talking about this kind of stuff.”

That is what Bachelor of Arts — Psychology student Tiffany Beks says when asked about her determination to raise awareness about student mental health.

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Through her passion and dedication to helping students feel that they can openly manage mental health issues, Beks has made a name for herself nationwide as she recently received the Canadian Association of Disability Service Providers in Post-Secondary Education (CADSPPE) Student Leadership Award.

The award is presented to a student who has shown exceptional leadership and made an exceptional contribution that has enhanced the quality of life for students with disabilities on campus or in the community.

Nominated by Access Advisor, Accessibility Services, Bonnie Blankert, the two worked closely together on the President’s Task Force on Student Mental Health.

“I had the opportunity to serve on the MRU President’s Task Force on Student Mental Health with Tiffany. I admire her devotion and relentless hard work toward both enhancing the lives of students with mental health disorders on campus and educating the MRU community regarding mental wellness,” says Blankert.

Enhancing student mental health on campus

In 2010, Beks began working as a Peer Health Educator through Wellness Services where she educated fellow students and the University community about health related issues.

This is where she came up with the idea to launch the University-wide contest, In Sight & In Mind.

“I wanted to engage the student body in raising awareness in student mental health,” says Beks. “I also wanted to show that each person’s experience is different. I wanted people to share their stories.”

The contest ran for the first time in 2011 through a partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association and the winning entry had their work published in Balance magazine.

“From that point, CTV caught wind of this event and interviewed me about my story and experience with mental health issues,” says Beks. “After I shared my story, I gathered more support and was receiving emails from across the country from different institutions asking if I could give them advice for starting a similar initiative at their universities.”

After witnessing the success of the event, Blankert along with Director of Wellness Services Kandi McElary and Leanne Edwards, counsellor, Wellness Services, invited Beks to attend a Town Hall in Toronto on student mental health.

“From there I joined the President’s Task Force on Student Mental Health and contributed to research that was done on Mount Royal as a whole to better understand what the gaps were and target how we could enhance student mental well being across campus,” Beks explains.

Raising awareness campus-wide

Although Beks’ spare time continued to decrease, her passion for student mental health continued to increase.

She co-chaired the Stigma Reduction Committee, which held many events throughout the year such as Depression Screening Awareness day, Movember Mental Health Jeopardy, In Sight & In Mind for a second year in a row and coordinated with the Faculty of Health and Community nursing students to put together the play Starry Starry Night about schizophrenia and performed by individuals living with schizophrenia here at Mount Royal.

“We focused on building capacity across campus and got on board with other committees and departments to increase awareness,” explains Beks. “We want to be a community based movement integrated into the culture and feel like just another part of the culture on campus.”

Beks, who is graduating in June, also wanted to make sure that when she moves on from Mount Royal her dedication to enhancing student mental health on campus remains strong.

“At the end of the year I decided I wanted to do something individually, so I established a scholarship for students that are engaged in mental health activities on campus,” says Beks.

“Students who start initiatives on campus or who are involved in committees with the primary goal of student mental health and wellness on campus will receive this scholarship.”

The scholarship will begin in Sept. 2014.

The story of her own journey

Beks wasn’t always on the front lines of advocating for student mental health awareness.

In 2005, she began university with excitement that was quickly diminished.

“My first attempt at school I ended up withdrawing because stress kept building and I didn’t feel like I had any answers to cope with how I was feeling,” explains Beks. “I became very depressed and I felt like I couldn’t achieve what I knew I was capable of because of the stress that I couldn’t somehow manage. That was very defeating and I felt helpless.”

Beks took some time off from school before she came to Mount Royal to give her education another shot.

“I was very nervous because I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle the stress again, but this time around I went and got the help that I needed to cope with the way I was feeling. I talked to counsellors and they provided me with the tools that I needed to get through everything,” she says.

Now an A student, Beks wants to continue to share her story with others.

“That handful of students who have contacted me personally was enough for me to say that you can’t change the world but you can certainly help people every day in some way,” says Beks.

“I feel very lucky that I got to experience this transformation from having to drop out of university to coming back and excelling because I got the tools, help and support I needed and to be able to share that and to help other people. I had a very meaningful experience at Mount Royal — It changed my life.

— Angela S., May 30, 2013