Despite the fact that we are learning to help and to heal, most medical students would agree that it can be challenging to admit to ourselves or our peers when we are not doing well and to reach out for help. One of the biggest barriers seems to be the shame and the stigma associated with mental illness or, more broadly, with not being able to cope with everything that comes our way. When things are going poorly, many of us stay silent, try to handle it alone as much as possible, and seek help only when things become dire.
The Aesculapian Society, the Student Wellness Committee and Mind the Gap are three student groups at the University of Ottawa who came together and decided to make a change and start building up a culture of support within our student body. Having heard of similar events being very successful at other schools across Canada, we decided to run an open-mic event inviting students to share a story of a time when they have struggled. We called our event “Our Stories”.
We wanted students to know that the event was a safe place where they could feel at-ease listening or telling these stories, so we decided to host the event off campus. However, having never run the event before we weren’t sure that we’d sell enough tickets to cover the cost of a venue. This is where the OMSA Wellness Initiative Grant saved the day. We applied for funding and thanks to the OMSA grant we were able to rent out a private room in an Irish cultural center, with a pub just outside the doors. We started collecting stories through an online submission form, and at first the going was a bit slow. As the date of the event drew nearer, the submissions started pouring in and we had to extend the time allotted at the venue! We recruited volunteers to read anonymous stories and hosted a prep night the evening before to allow storytellers a chance to practice reading their story to a small group before they stood up at the mic.
We decided to sell tickets at a low cost in order to cover the cost of a few extra items, including snacks. All profits went to a local charity known as Do It For Daron (DIFD), which does important work in the community to encourage young people to talk openly about mental illness. This mission was very in-keeping with the goal of our event and we hope that the money we donated will help them continue to host suicide prevention sessions, work with the school board to develop a mental health curriculum, and prompt discussions that save lives.
Approximately 150 students came to the event and 17 stories were told. The atmosphere was warm and supportive and we couldn’t have imagined the event going better. We have received an abundance of positive feedback about the event. Importantly, we have heard that more students have shared their own stories with friends, and have even gone to get help that they had been avoiding for some time. We hope that this event will become an annual tradition that will foster a culture of support, openness, and solidarity among medical students and beyond.
Thank you so much OMSA for helping us make this happen!