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Health and wellness a focus for the New Year


by Felicia Carty

The holidays provide opportunities for overindulgence -- in food, alcohol, spending and partying. We all then have a chance to redeem ourselves with resolutions to make the New Year better -- losing that extra holiday weight, cutting down on drinking, getting enough sleep, or paying that credit card off.

But striving for a healthy lifestyle is important all year long, according to organizers of the Wellness Peer Programs offered by the Health & Wellness Centre at U of T Scarborough. That’s one of the many reasons they work to inform and support students in choosing a healthy lifestyle. With a little effort and education, the holidays and New Year can be every bit as enjoyable – even in keeping with a healthy lifestyle.

Elsa Kiosses, Health Promotion Nurse, supervises these initiatives. She says these programs come at an important time for students, as their decision-making during university will likely determine their future lifestyle.

“Our students are exploring new chapters in their lives, and dealing with issues related to relationships and intimacy at the same time that they are starting to take ownership of managing their own lives and relying on themselves for cooking, chores, managing their finances and dealing with stress,” she says, “Hopefully, these programs can bring awareness to students and help them develop healthy habits that will continue into adulthood.”

Five distinct Wellness Peer Programs are now offered: Party in the Right Spirit; Nutritional Health; Leave the Pack Behind; Sexual Health; and Mental Wellness. They consist of on-campus events, awareness campaigns and workshops. Throughout the year, you can find Peer Educators in the Student Centre or the Meeting Place, distributing information, demonstrating techniques, and sometimes referring students to further resources for additional help. A Wellness Fair is scheduled for Thursday, January 22 in the Meeting Place, where students can get information on any one of the programs doled out fellow students.

Kiosses says the peer aspect of these programs makes information more accessible to their target audience. “Students who might be intimidated or not ready to ask their questions to a health professional, might be more comfortable approaching other students,” she says, “The Peer Educators offer the information in a non-judgmental way that does not put pressure on the students.”

Party in the Right Spirit

In keeping with the friendly approach of the Wellness Peer Programs, as well as with the holiday festivities, students can participate in Party in the Right Spirit. This drug and alcohol awareness program serves to provide information to students, rather than forcing them to become abstainers against their will. It focuses mainly around three different areas: Firstly, it addresses alcohol liability concerns about guests at functions where alcohol is served or may be present. Secondly, it provides information on drug and alcohol impairment, concentrating on topics like alcohol poisoning, alcohol limits, and the effects that alcohol and drugs may have on the body. Lastly, it educates students on risk-taking and alcohol, addressing concerns such as violence, possible sexual assault, and other dangerous consequences that may occur when someone is impaired.

Nutritional Health

The Nutritional Health Peer Program aims not only to inform students on how to eat properly in keeping with to the Canada Food Guide. This program also looks at proper methods of practicing modified diets, such as vegetarianism and veganism. It also aims to educate students on related issues, like dieting and metabolism, as well as the often unforeseen psychological effects of weight loss. Students can look out for more from this group of peer educators in the New Year, and even get involved, with the group’s 21 Day Challenge. Collaborating with a group from Physical Education and Athletics, P.A.C.E. (Physical Activity Coaches and Educators), the group aims to get students more active and eating better by supporting health related New Year’s resolutions. Starting on Monday, January 12, it will be offering workshops and challenges, as well as prizes for competitors. The idea is that if you can keep your goal for 21 days, being motivated by a peer support group, hopefully you can make it a lifestyle habit.

Leave the Pack Behind

Leave the Pack Behind is not your usual anti-smoking campaign. Rather than focusing on convincing smokers to quit, the program’s peer educators function as a support group for smokers who want to quit and non-smokers who choose not to start, as well as former smokers who may be struggling to kick the habit for good. Leave the Pack Behind, which is administered by Brock University, also serves to provide information to students, such as ingredients found within cigarettes and results from scientific studies done on the effects of smoking. They also suggest alternative methods people can use to deal with their stressors, rather than smoking, as well as provide information on other addictive substances. Watch for details in January about “Let’s Make a Deal”, a series of contests aimed at addressing issues relevant to particular types of smokers, such as “chain smokers” or “occasional social smokers”. Registration for this contest will start on January 19. (Further details will be posted on the Intranet.)

Sexual Health

The Sexual Health Peer Program aims to educate students on a slew of sexual-health related issues. Topics included are: methods of contraceptives, sexually transmitted infections, as well as maintaining healthy relationships. Workshops concentrate on informed decision-making, safe-sex practices, as well as self-esteem issues. In the New Year, the peer program will be focusing on informing students about HPV and encouraging yearly pap smears for females who are sexually active. Included will be information on the link between HPV, abnormal cell changes and cervical cancer, as well as vaccines and their availabilities. (Dates and times of events to be announced.)

Mental Wellness

Launched in September 2008, the Mental Wellness Peer Program is the latest initiative to be offered by the Health & Wellness Centre. The goal of the program is to encourage the mental and emotional wellbeing of students. Fifth-year student Jenna Hossack is the coordinator of the new program, which focuses on issues such as stress, sleep, mental illnesses, self care and self esteem. “The counseling services at Health & Wellness Centre are incredibly popular,” Hossack says. “They saw a demand from the students that they were seeing, as well as from feedback from the other peer groups.” Kiosses says that much of this program is about de-stigmatizing issues around mental health, and letting people know that there are ways to live a fulfilling life even with a diagnosis. She also says it’s important for students to know that there are resources, support and information for those who may suddenly be dealing with problems for which they were not prepared. “Mental health issues that may have been manageable before now have the potential to surface,” she says, “Some people have very good coping habits, and others need an opportunity to learn.” Watch for more details from this group in the future, including the Mental Health Awareness Week in March 2009, an event put on in collaboration with Students Advocating for Mental Health Awareness and the Psychology and Neuroscience Departmental Association.

For more information on any of the Wellness Peer Programs, students can feel free to drop in to the Health & Wellness Centre, located at SL-270 on the second floor of the Student Centre. They can also get information about all five programs at the Wellness Fair on Thursday January 22 in the Meeting Place.

Felicia Carty is a graduate of the journalism program offered jointly by U of T Scarborough and Centennial College.

© University of Toronto Scarborough