In light of the Not Myself Today campaign launching early next month (April 2nd) that prompts the need for increased mental health support in workplaces and companies, I thought I would share the student perspective of things.

If an employee is to his or her job, then a student is to his or her education. The school (elementary, secondary, post-secondary) is the forefront battleground for the first two decades of any youth’s life. This is where we learn to read and write, to have critical discussions about different topics of the world, and to receive the education that will propel us into a lasting career when we grow up.

And, boy, do we need to grow up fast.

The school has become an increasingly stressful “work” place for students. It’s no wonder that a 2012 article from Maclean’s refers university students as the #brokengeneration. Academic proficiency has always, and for the conceivable future, the forefront of what makes a good student (debatable, but not for this topic being discussed here). Students that may strive for post-secondary education are no longer seeing the merit of just finishing 4-5 years of education beyond high school. University and colleges have become the stepping stone to even more education. And, in this vicious cycle, this means sapping students of most of their cognitive resources to stand out and do well in an environment that pushes and grinds and refuses to budge more often than not.

This may be attributed to the Flynn effect as we see students seemingly become smarter and smarter with the start of each generation, but the mental health and well-being of students have also become a detrimental problem that remains unresolved. More and more students are seeking services to cope with depression, anxiety, and stress. A 2013 report by the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS) surveyed a large number of Canadian post-secondary students on various health concerns, including mental health. The statistics, when generalized, paint a harsh reality facing students on a regular basis. Here are some of the more noticeable numbers:

  • 89.3% of students feel overwhelmed by all they have to do (with 93.5% of the female students surveyed agreeing)
  • 68.5% of students have felt very sad in the last 12 months, and 37.5% have felt so depressed that it was difficult to function
  • Anxiety (12.3%) and Depression (10%) leads the list of a multitude of different professionally diagnosed illnesses
  • Academics, Career-related issues, Finances, and Family problems are the most traumatic and difficult to handle

Unfortunately, the last statistic rings true for most post-secondary students. With the challenges of the university and college settings, students are finding it increasingly difficult to not get lost in the academic rigour. The need for success is no longer motivated by personal achievement, but for the continuity of sustaining a foreseeable career that will be stable and provide income for both themselves and for their family. Yet, in this day and age, where a Bachelors degree is almost irrelevant, it is hard-pressed for students not to pursue further education and commit even more time and mental resources to achieving these goals.

What comes of it, unfortunately, is the alarming rise of mental illnesses occurring in the student population, something that does not show a sign of peaking.

This issue is gaining a voice and being heard, albeit with a steep price (check out the article from Maclean’s provided above). We ARE affected by mental health issues, whether it is in the actual workplace or at school. And the misunderstandings that surround such problems become a barrier that employees and students both face. Such preconceived notions must be snipped at its bud. Luckily with more and more acknowledgement of its severity, there has been a positive push to focus on this issue at large. For example, the University of Toronto Scarborough has recently created a collaborative initiative called Flourish that builds on individual strengths and allows students to grow intellectually, socially, and emotionally throughout their academic and personal development. As well, groundbreaking research from McMaster University is conducting the first-ever research in Canada on the role that school plays in the mental health of students, teachers, and principals.

Needless to say, programs like Flourish, ongoing mental health-related research, and campaigns like Not Myself Today are fighting for mental health and well-being to be taken seriously and given full support, in the workplace and in the school environment.

So maybe next time, if a student tells you that “I’m Not Myself Today,” it’s worth hearing why.

In the workplace or at school, please pause when someone tells you that they are not themselves today.

For the past 3 months, on the first Sunday of each of those months, I have been leading a group of youth volunteers to a local shelter and food bank called Good Shepherd Ministries. I am an active member of a leadership organization, and one of its main advocations is instilling a sense of awareness to community and social needs. For my group of youths, between the ages of 14-15 years old, we have spent the past few months working on a project looking at the effects of poverty and homelessness and ways in which we can do something to help those overcome such challenges in their lives. Just yesterday, after almost half a year of researching and volunteering, they presented their experiences to over 70 younger students at a local elementary school. And other than one final presentation that they have to do in from to their peers during their final leadership sessions, they are finally done.

For those that are interested in learning more, Good Shepherd opened its doors in 1963 as a shelter for those that need a warm bed at night, with food and clothing aplenty. Other than providing the basic necessities of life, it has also helped people overcome addictions and access health care at their in-house medical clinics. Each year, an estimated 16000 individuals use one or more of these services, and with its doors opened 365 days a year and led by a dedicated group of staff and volunteers, Good Shepherd has essentially been a beacon of hope for the less fortunate.

Entrance to Good Shepherd Ministries at 412 Queen Street East

Entrance to Good Shepherd Ministries at 412 Queen Street East

Although I have been to Good Shepherd as a volunteer once before, I went in with the same curiosity and inhibitions that my group of youths had. This was, of course, outside of their comfort zone. As one of my kids pointed out during the presentation yesterday, most of the times they would look away or avoid interacting with people on the street as it is customary in our current social context. Now, here they were, opening themselves to seeing some of the crippling realities that a lot of people face and struggle with in life.

On the three separate occasions that we went, we were able to help out at the different areas of the shelter that needed the most assistance. In October, we spent a lot of time in the kitchen, serving meals for the daily patrons that visit the shelter and  preparing packages for families during Thanksgiving. In return, we always had a free meal which we were always happy to receive after all the hard work we put in.

Preparing food for lunch time with some of the youths in my group

Preparing food for lunch time with some of the youths in my group


A look at the cafeteria. This usually is filled with people by the lunch hour, both volunteers and people looking for a meal.

We also had a chance to help out in the upper levels, where we helped with cleaning and making the 91 beds that were located at the facility. Although it seems to be very arduous work, none of the kids in my group complained. I think they were all very happy to be able to contribute in any way that they could.

Making beds

Making beds

Mopping and sweeping the entire housing floor

Mopping and sweeping the entire housing floor

Finally, on the last two times that we visited Good Shepherd, the youths and I had a chance to work in the Clothing Room, where we helped to organize and separate the clothing for the men that came to the shelter. On the last day, my kids also had a chance to give a donation of warm socks to the staff members. They had made friendship bracelets and sold over fifty of them and were rewarded with the chance of seeing their time and energy be used meaningfully. We were told by the staff member at the front desk that he would distribute our socks directly to the people that came into the shelter that day, seeing as how the temperature was starting to get cold again.

Sorting out the clothing

Sorting out the clothing

It was very rewarding to volunteer our time at Good Shepherd. For the kids, it was a chance to see their efforts put into good use. Growing up, all of us have different opportunities at school to raise money or donate non-perishable food items/clothing. But, to be honest, do we ever think about where these items actually end up? My group had a chance to see that for themselves, and it was a humbling experience. I think the biggest change that I saw amongst my kids, and, in some ways, in myself, was the attitude that they had towards the less fortunate. When we see someone on the street asking for money or sleeping on the ground, our initial reaction is to look away or consider what troubles they must be in. During our presentation at the local elementary school, my group asked the students the same question. Most of the responses were ones that you would expect – the people on the street were probably there due to drugs, alcoholism, or mental health problems. And that might be true, given some of the conversations that we overheard while at Good Shepherd. But the biggest take-away that we got from our time at Good Shepherd was just how genuine and friendly the people were. Whether it was the cheerful staff members and volunteers or the people that dotted the cafeteria, there was a sense of vibrancy and togetherness that you may not expect from where we were. Everyone was in a positive mood, which quickly worked into my own group as we eagerly helped out wherever we were called upon. The food that we served, although not 5-star material, was abundant and left everyone satisfied and full. Outside we are told to be respectful and polite, but inside Good Shepherd we were seen as a large-extended family. For our efforts, minimal as it was now that I think about it, we were greeted with encouraging words and unconditional kindness. The people that worked and used the services may not have a lot in terms of tangible goods, but they were rich beyond measures in how they went about their lives.

During the school presentation, one of the youths in the group brought up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, amusingly comparing ourselves with both Beyoncé and the less fortunate. Amusing as it was, he struck a chord in the students that were listening to the talk. Our priorities are really based on where we stand in society, and what we are given. Beyoncé may worry about her music career, and we may worry about getting the latest gadgets in time for Christmas, but what about the children and families who don’t even have enough to satisfy some of the most basic psychophysiological needs that are at the bottom level of Maslow’s pyramid? And this is the same for those with mental health or addiction-related problems. Rather than look away and blind ourselves to what they might be facing, perhaps it is time we actually opened our arms and invite the opportunities to play our part. Regardless of age, my group of youths demonstrated that it is possible to make a difference. Even if it only meant volunteering at a local shelter for 3 hours each month and donating warm socks to those that need it, these are the small tokens that can lead us to bettering society as a whole and reducing the stigmas that come with mental health and issues like poverty.

For the first ever blog post entry, I figured it would be a great place to start if I defined the blog’s namesake.

Zeitgeist [tsahyt-gahyst]
noun, German.
1. the spirit of the time; general trend of thought or feeling characteristic of a particular period of time.

Most often associated with German philosopher Georg Hegel, in his works he uses the phrase der Geist seiner Zeit (the spirit of his time) as a way to suggest that “no man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit.” So Zeitgeist does mean the Spirit of The Time or the Spirit of the Age, depending on who you ask. I prefer the subtle difference that encompasses the latter translation, because age seems more elaborate and more infinite than a specific time.

I chose this title, because in this blog I hope to document some of my thoughts on topics within my areas of interest, which over the last few years, has been psychology and the ideas surrounding human interaction and behaviour, from the negative to the ideal. And as Hegel suggested in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, what we think about is greatly influenced by the ideas that transpose our era. To this extent, I believe that this also seeps into what we make of ourselves. We live in a fast-paced world where daily dialogues are made for the betterment of the world as a whole, but how often do we fend for our own selves, our own well-being?

We still live in a rat race society, and it has become much more stressful and demanding. Ultimately, this has led to more problems and illnesses, both physically and mentally. That is the spirit of our age, but it is also true that we should be doing something about it. These first two decades of the 21st century, where human escapades and revolutions in online media are constantly highlighted, we are also seeing its effect on our own personal and psychological journeys. It is seen when we are part of the greatest development of technology and culture in human history; however, it is also where we see the terrible incendiaries that challenge what we think of ourselves, our bodies, and our mental health each and every day.  And this is what the trend of my blog will hopefully show – the mental pictures that we paint of ourselves, the masterpieces that we hope others will see, and the actual slate that is scribbled on as we age (Re: John Locke, Tabula rasa).

The Spirit of our Age is this. We live in a world where mental health is discussed, but no action is taken on its part. And how can we continue to avoid something that we stare at each time we look into the mirror in the morning? Let’s open up the discussions, the movements, and the pressing need that we all should have to better understand the concerns of mental health. Because without ourselves, who are we really?