Brightly coloured balls spilled over the edge of the bin as construction engineering student Adolphe Hirwa climbed in. The deep ball pit covered every part of him except his face as he relived many people’s childhood memories.
“You know that once I get in, I’m not getting out,” said Hirwa, laughing.
It was a timely and appropriate quip as the pit wasn’t just there for fun for the passers-by, but to show that mental illness is escapable. You can get out.
Hirwa was one of the hundreds of students, faculty and staff who not only jumped in the ball pit but learned about the mental health resources available at the college.
The activities were a part of Algonquin’s Mental Health Awareness Week which took place Feb. 8-12, a combination effort between the AC Purple Couch and Student Support Services. The initiative aims to help both students and staff develop an appreciation for the benefits of staying mentally healthy.
“When we talk about mental health, it’s different from mental illness. We address mental illness during a separate week,” said Catherine Sugrue, a health promotion educator with Health Services.
There has been an increase in the number of students who step forward and report having mental health difficulties in recent years. Alison West-Armstrong, a counsellor from Student Support Services said that de-stigmatization efforts have likely contributed to this increase.
“A lot of famous people have stepped up and said they have challenges,” said West-Armstrong. “It’s good modelling.”
She explained that sometimes students dealing with anxiety or depression don’t even realize that what they’re experiencing isn’t normal. It’s important for the person to be able to recognize that there is a problem that is affecting them so that they can then seek out resources to help.
“It’s okay to ask for help – there’s always someone to talk to,” said West-Armstrong.
Spreading awareness about the many resources that the college provides for both students and staff was one of the major goals of the week. Each day, the group was set up in a different location on the campus.
“We partnered up with the Purple Couch so that we can be a one-stop shop, travelling fair that we can bring to the students, instead of the students coming to us,” said Sugrue. “We promote the resources around the school pertaining to mental health. There’s actually a lot more than people realize.”
These resources include health services, the student distress line, counselling services and online tools and workshops.
West-Armstrong was working the Purple Couch, chatting with people and providing stress tests. If a student scored highly on the stress test, she could let them know and give them information about the resources that might help them manage their stress levels.
The week provided numerous fun and easy opportunities to relieve some stress. There was a wheel to spin that had categories with questions about mental health and the resources at the college as well as “Take Action” cards which would give the spinner small tasks to help improve their day. These varied from simply taking a few deep breaths to finding a stranger and creating a secret handshake with them.
The AC Hub provided herbal teas, colouring books, board games and mind games on the Wednesday to give students an opportunity to relax and take a break from their studies.
And, of course, there was the ball pit.
“Having them jump in, it relieves the stress and definitely gives them a boost,” said second-year police foundations student Garrett Hamilton. “I’d be the first person in line (for the ball pit) if I wasn’t working here.”