May 5, 2015 4:39 pm
Updated: May 5, 2015 4:56 pm

Blue elephants help fight mental illness stigma at Mount Allison University


Above watch: Mount Allison University is placing small blue elephants around campus to help stop the stigma of mental health and get people talking about the elephant in the room. Alex Abdelwahab reports.

SACKVILLE – Mount Allison University is placing small blue elephants around its campus to try to fight stigma associated with mental illnesses.

The new program is trying to get people talking about the “elephant” in the room.

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Human resources consultant Katherine DeVere-Pettigrew knows first-hand how mental illnesses can impede someone’s daily activities. When she was pregnant with her son, she suffered from postpartum depression.

“I was lucky that I wasn’t at work at the time,” she said. “But if I had been, I know I would have experienced some challenges coming into work on time, or attendance-wise or even focus.”

She joined the blue elephant program and has had a small elephant on her desk for about a week. She said she’s received many questions about it, which she thinks helps to create a safe space to talk about mental health.

DeVere-Pettigrew said people usually aren’t shy to talk about physical issues with her like back pain or chronic migraines.

“People are pretty open with their communication that way, but it’s not always the case when it’s a mental health-related issue,” she said.

Staff, faculty and members of the students’ union can participate in the program by putting an elephant on their desk.

It’s part of a national anti-stigma campaign that was started by the Mood Disorders Society of Canada a few years ago. The elephants cost $7 each, with proceeds going to the society. Since it began, blue elephants have been provided to school boards, universities and organizations across the country.

Karen Geldart, the campus mental health educator and on-campus organizer of the campaign, said each person who agrees to join, called a “mental-health champion” also receives a booklet of campus and community resources that they can offer students.

She said students on campus are under a lot of pressure even without having a mental illness.

“There are a lot of demands on their time, a lot of academic stress, a lot of personal stress and a lot of development issues that are going on for someone in that age group,” she said. “But the prime age-group where we see mental health issues manifesting and developing is this age group of late adolescents and early adulthood.”

A Global-Ipsos Reid roll released last week found the majority of millennials in the country are at risk of developing a mental illness.

Geldart said it makes for a “double-whammy,” so it’s especially important for students and other people in the campus community to have a space where they feel comfortable talking about what is going on.

Ryan LeBreton will be going into his fourth year at Mount Allison in September and is also vice-president campus life for the students’ union. He said he saw many of his friends experience those challenges when he was part of the residence leadership team.

“It becomes an issue of time-management, balancing academic, social life,” he said. “That’s why I find the little elephants are really good. When you do have those professionals who are there to help you…sometimes you need the visual.”

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