‘I’ve been there at the abyss’: UBC president shares personal mental health journey

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Back to school: UBC president’s personal mental health struggle
WATCH: UBC President Santa Ono is sharing his own story of mental health struggles, and how his university is helping its students cope with academic pressure – Aug 28, 2019

As students prepare to head back to school next week, they’re prepping for assignments, exams — and the pressure-cooker of stress that often comes along with them.

As they do so, UBC’s president is also speaking out, telling students that they’re not alone by sharing his own story of mental health challenges.

Santa Ono was just 14 the first time he tried to take his own life, due to what he said were “feelings of inadequacy” from being a middle sibling between two child prodigies.

Ono never told his family about the unsuccessful attempt, and made a second, more serious attempt years later as a young academic at Johns Hopkins University.

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Leadership series: UBC President Dr. Santa J. Ono

Fortunately, he received treatment following that attempt with medication and therapy, and has harnessed his experience to prioritize access to support for the students now under his governance.

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“I think that when I was in university there are many things that were conspiring to exacerbate my situation. I did not eat properly. I was probably undernourished, I didn’t sleep very well,” Ono told Global News, echoing the stressesors that most people who’ve been through university would recognize.

“There are moments that were very happy for me being at university with other students my age, and there were other days where I would just be in my bed alone, not having the energy or the will to get up to feed myself or to shower.

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“That’s something that occurs in many individuals’ lives, and many university students’ lives, and recognizing that I’m sort of a case in point of what can happen, I don’t want that to happen to other students at UBC or at any other institution.”

Ono credits the support of close friends for helping get him back on track — being surrounded by people who recognized when he’d lost control and who helped him through it.

But Ono says he was lucky to have those people around him, noting not everyone else does.

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It’s part of the reason he says UBC has piloted a 24-hour counsellor in the school’s residences, to try and ensure that support is there when students are in crisis.

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“I think it’s really really important because many of these counseling services are open Monday through Friday until 5 p.m,” he said.

“Having lived this myself, some of my most difficult moments were at 2 a.m. perhaps in the first term right before examinations and it’s at that exact moment that the counsellor is not available.”

Ono said UBC has also funded an additional $2.5 million per year to cut wait lists for counselling services.

Those are small steps in what Ono admits is a “formidable challenge,” but one he sees as achievable.

Ono said the conversation around mental health and suicide is ongoing among Canadian universities, noting a recent white paper from Universities Canada that lays out a roadmap for policies and resources to help address the problem.

But he said while initiatives like Bell Let’s Talk have helped open the door to talking about mental health, too many students still feel ashamed to open up about what they’re going through.

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“If I think about cases of suicide that have occurred, in many cases they are brilliant students that no one has a clue that they’re struggling,” he said.

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Ono also said he wants students to know things can get better. He currently lives symptom-free, but says it wasn’t immediate.

His journey to mental health first involved anti-depressant medication and psychotherapy.

But he said the first step is asking for help.

“The message is make use of the resources that are available,” he said.  “[In] many cases students are aware of the resources that are available to support them but they don’t actually work. They wait too long to access them.

“I’ve been there at the abyss and I’m still standing thanks to luck and people who took care of me, and so my message is to reach out to others.

“There’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s something that’s very common, and that they can even reach out to me if they’d like.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, there are resources available. UBC students can find information about counselling services here

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In case of an emergency, please call 911. If you or a loved one has mental health issues, you can contact the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566, or Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.

-With files from Sonia Deol

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