Food can be many things: fuel, comfort, escape, even obsession. To Dave O’Brien, food opens the door to mindfulness, a technique the UVic counsellor uses to help over-wrought students deal with hectic lives.
This calming method helps with everything from anxiety to depression. And it all starts with a lowly raisin. Using the methods of American mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn, O’Brien, BSW ’88, strives to teach students self-awareness and self-acceptance. In a nutshell, to live in the moment.
“Hold it. Feel it,” O’Brien tells the students who have signed up for his mindfulness groups. “Use your five senses. Now place it in your mouth. Experience the taste and texture. Don’t eat it.”
It sounds easy. But many of us live a lot of our lives mindlessly. The dinner table is a prime example. Here we are fraught with other distractions that have nothing to do with what’s on the plate: the computer, cell phone, radio, television, newspaper, friends or family, anything but the food in front of us. Even our thoughts get in the way of in-the-moment eating. Mindfulness teaches a way to take in the experiences of mind-body interactions, its proponents insist. It’s living in the moment and accepting what happens. And oneself.
Buddhism, for instance, is deeply rooted in mindfulness.
The fact O’Brien and his colleagues hold many counselling therapy sessions in groups makes UVic a leader in Canadian post-secondary institutions. Many offer group counselling services but few offer the variety that UVic does, more than 40 in all. There are groups for everything from panic attack sufferers and eating disorders to grief support and social anxiety, in addition to many individual counselling sessions.
UVic is particularly open to trying new and proven techniques for helping its students. It’s a good thing too. Challenges, for counsellors and students alike, are mounting. Students across the continent are dealing with growing stress and are consequently seeking counselling with increasing frequency. UVic Counselling, which has 10 full-time counsellors and has just added a half-time position, could use double the number of counsellors to meet demand, says Joe Parsons, the department’s manager. That’s double the number of counsellors from 1980 when Parsons started at UVic.
“I can tell you, if we had more counsellors, we would have more students (seeking help),” Parsons says.
Last year, more than 2,000 people — about 12 per cent of UVic’s student body — sought counselling of some form. Parsons says that’s high for a university.
Although the department offers an array of counselling services — including help with career and learning skills — personal counselling has seen a dramatic increase in the three decades that Parsons has been at UVic. In 1985-86, about 26 per cent of students who sought help reported stress or anxiety, a number that has reached 57 per cent. Depression has also more than doubled from about 17 to 37 per cent.
So what’s eating students today?
“I wish I knew,” Parsons says. “It seems to be across North America.”
Both counsellors have theories. O’Brien posits that there is mounting financial stress as student debt climbs, which puts a lot of pressure for students to find work. Not easy in a soft economy. Parsons thinks that with the greater availability of medical treatment for conditions like anxiety, stress and depression, some students who may not have been able to attend university in past decades are better equipped to attempt an academic course-load.
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