Name: Ally Geist
School: Dalhousie University
Major: Theatre Studies and French. Theatre Studies is basically a super specialized English with practical course work (aka not acting; I’m definitely a behind-the-scenes girl). We do a lot of text analysis and interpretation, and focus on directing and dramaturgy.
Fav thing about your campus: It is so close to the ocean! If you live in Halifax, you are just minutes to waterfront. I have always found the water calming, and being on a coast is so different from where I grew up in Ontario. It’s so nice to be able to feel the cold, salty air fill my lungs and have the water remind me of all of life’s possibilities!
Dream Job: I would love to be a mental health occupational therapist. I very much have the opinion that people can do anything they put their minds to, even if they have to do it a little differently! I would love to help people achieve their goals, and celebrate their little victories. I want to show people who don’t feel “sick enough” or like they are “struggling enough” to deserve help that they can take care of themselves, and that self-care is never selfish.
What is your connection to mental illness?
I have many connections to mental illness. Over the past few years, I was surprised to learn that most of my friends live with mental illness, from anxiety, panic disorder, depression, and borderline personality disorder, to eating disorders, PTSD and everything in between. I have been a support to these friends for a while, and they really helped me when I realized that I was struggling myself.
When people ask me about my mental health story, I never really know what to tell them. My story is being written every day, and sometimes I don’t even know how I got to where I am today. I can’t remember the first time I struggled. I can’t pinpoint when I first started feeling like I wasn’t good enough. In my second year of university, however, these feelings reached a tipping point, and after seeing a psychologist, I learned that I live with generalized anxiety disorder. It was a bit of a relief, honestly, to hear that how I was feeling, and the discomfort I felt every day, was not “normal”. Thankfully, I was, and still am a residence assistant, so my friends/coworkers are passionate about helping others. They told me that I should start taking care of my mental health when I was at my lowest, before I even really recognized that mental health was a thing that everyone has. I have also struggled with body image issues, which unfortunately is so common in this media-driven age, but I am finally accepting and learning to love my body for everything it can do, not hating it for what society deems its “flaws”.
Over the past year, I have recognized that some things may frighten me, but I am not weak. I’m anxious but courageous! I may have panic attacks, but that doesn’t mean that my friends and family don’t love me. I am so many things, and my anxiety doesn’t define who I am. I have finally learned that I don’t have to fit into a certain box to be loved and cared for. I am learning that I can have my own opinions and stand up for what I believe in, and be proud of myself, instead of worrying about what other people might think. Since I became a mental health advocate, I can honestly say that my world has changed. It has brought me to some of my best friends, it has made me take ownership of my own mental health, and it has made me really learn how to practice self-care. I am finally proud of who I am, and am learning what it feels like to love yourself. Working for WYL has made me so much more comfortable with who I am, and I am constantly inspired by how many people have started sharing their stories with me since I became a Campus Rep.
How do you deal with stress from school?
I make lists. So many lists. I break things down into little pieces, so that I can check them off and feel accomplished. For instance, I’ll plan to write the thesis for my essay, instead of writing the whole essay in one sitting. It makes me feel less overwhelmed to tackle things one small piece at a time. As an RA, I also live where I work, so I try to get off campus when I can. I walk by the water to clear my head, I’ve started going to yoga, and I will often go to the park to pet all the dogs (who wouldn’t feel better with a furry friend to hug)!
I’m also part of several mental health groups on campus, so associating myself with people who “get it”, and who prioritize self-care, has really helped me de-stress. It’s so nice to work for the people I do, because if I’m having a bad day, or I need to take a mental break, my friends and coworkers are so great about it. Because that’s the thing – we all get it. Everyone goes through tough times, whether you live with mental illness or not. Creating a safe space as a society, to really take ownership of who we are, is the 5-in-5’s fight, and will benefit us all. Talking about what I’m going through instantly helps me de-stress.
What helps me more than anything, though is self-care. Self-care, to me, is eating well, going for walks and taking plenty of study breaks. It is taking a day or night off to sleep, watching Netflix, checking out a cute new café, or hanging out with a friend when I need to (my best friends are also great and let me sleep at their places a lot). Truly coming to believe that self-care isn’t selfish, and prioritizing it before class or my jobs, has made my daily life so much easier.
What does your campus do to help students' mental health?
Dalhousie has several supports available to students. We have student health promotion, and a new Stay Connected Peer Support program, where a few students are trained in mental health first aid and can provide drop-in support to peers. The Dalhousie Medical Campus Response Team has a mental health branch that students can utilize for peer support as well. For students living in residence, residence assistants can be a great resource to you. We have received extensive training in peer counselling and mental health, and can help students find the resources and supports they need. Dal also has a social worker who is available to meet with students, several doctors, a nurse practitioner, nurses, and counselling services. Unfortunately, counselling services often has long wait times, but there are several support groups for students while they wait for individual counselling, or to use in lieu of individual counselling. There is also an e-counselling option available to Dalhousie Students for anxiety and depression, called WellTrack if students feel that they would benefit from working on their own. The groups offered by Dalhousie counselling services range from eating disorder and self-care groups to discussions on mindfulness and overcoming exam anxiety. Lastly, student advocacy groups such as Dalhousie’s ProSocial Project and the Jack.org Chapter are advocacy groups who hope to promote awareness about mental health, self-care, and resources on campus.
Do you have any school year self care tips to share with other students?
Take breaks! You’re allowed to. It’s so easy to get caught up in the stress of school and not allow your body and mind time to rest. But if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to focus or get the most from your classes and readings. Eat well, spend some time with friends, and find something that you can do alone, just because you want to – not because you have to. Once I started doing things just because I enjoyed them, not because they were on my long to-do list, I started feeling so much happier.
Also, something that really helps me is keeping my room clean. I can’t focus if my space is messy. Find out what you need to focus and unwind, and do it! No regrets, no guilt, just self care. And remember – if you need support, seek it out. You don’t need to have a diagnosed mental health concern to benefit from counselling, peer support, or self-care. 1/5 Canadians have mental illness, but 5/5 have mental health. So we ALL need to take care of our minds as much as we take care of our bodies! Take advantage of all the resources at your disposal as a student. Remember that you’re never alone. I’m proud of you.