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University Of Calgary Scholarship Supports Mental Health Advocates And Change-makers

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According to a recent study, Canadian veterinarians report poorer mental health compared to the general population — something the recipient of a new scholarship at the University of Calgary is hoping to change.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, found that vets surveyed reported significantly higher burnout, anxiety, depression and reduced resilience.

Reading about these findings worried Dr. Linda Dorrestein, DVM, an international student and PhD candidate from the Netherlands. Her mental health advocacy has earned her the inaugural Josephine Wearmouth Memorial Doctoral Scholarship, an endowed award given annually to ­­­a graduate student who is making a difference in student mental health and suicide prevention.

Advocacy through volunteerism and lived experience
Dorrestein says she noticed a marked change in mental health concerns when she came to Calgary from her home country in 2019.

“I always thought we had quite a bit of pressure on our shoulders in the Netherlands. And then I came to Canada,” Dorrestein says. “It’s much more grade-focused here, and I see a lot of people being affected by that mindset. You can really feel the pressure.”

This prompted her to join a mental health subcommittee at UCalgary’s Foothills campus. As a student with career experience — she received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Utrecht University in 2015 — she felt better equipped to support her peers and colleagues.

“I’ve had mornings where I had to euthanize seven animals before the lunch break. That hurts,” Dorrestein says. “So, getting an A instead of an A+ just isn’t that important anymore, in a way.”

The subcommittee conducted a survey on how best to support the graduate student community. Results led to initiatives like peer check-ins, lobbying for more funding for mental health initiatives, and creating a communication workshop for students and supervisors to help strengthen their resilience.

It also inspired the ZenDen, which recently opened at Foothills. It’s a physical space for students to “cool down, relax or maybe even cry if they need to,” says Dorrestein, who supported the idea and was proud to see it come to fruition thanks to subcommittee members who came after her.

The experience gave her hope that future students can form communities of caring and work towards prioritizing balance over grades, like she was able to do.

“I just hope that students who might be struggling seek help or open up to their peers,” she says. “There is always someone who wants to listen to you. And, for those not struggling, ask your peers how they’re doing, how they’re really doing. It’s important we take care of each other.”

Creating a legacy and making change
That kind of care hits home for Shelley and Curran Wearmouth, mother and brother of Josephine Wearmouth, who was the inspiration for the scholarship Dorrestein received. In 2017, Josephine, then a 19-year-old psychology student at the University of British Columbia, lost her battle with mental health challenges.

For Shelley and Curran, the scholarship is a way to pay tribute to her and process their grief. “This is another way of honouring Josie,” says Curran. “We can still carry on her values by finding another way of building a mental health culture.”

Shelley, BSc (Eng)’83, MEng’94, says the shock some students may feel moving to a new place, away from their usual support networks, can have a profound impact. After Josie’s death, Shelley asked many questions, even going to her daughter’s high school and talking with students.

“We immediately saw a need for more (supports). It’s so difficult for these young kids,” she says. “Mental health can be a life-threatening situation, and it needs to be respected.”

The Wearmouths weren’t alone in seeing the need for change — the Children’s Hospital Aid Society, the Calgary Tennis Club and a host of family and friends got behind the award, raising $150,000 to ensure it exists in perpetuity and inspires mental health leadership for generations to come.

“We wanted to get students interested and engaged so they can make their own impact,” Shelley says. “They are our future leaders. Many will go out into the work world; many will raise families of their own. They need to be mental health-literate.”

By funding change-makers like Dorrestein, the Wearmouths are working towards that goal — one which they hope will move the needle and save lives.