Zachary Walsh, UBC Okanagan assistant professor of pyschology, speaks at the mental health and resiliency research panel discussion held this week. Photo Credit: Barry Gerding/Black Press

Smoking pot, cuddling dogs at UBCO

Forum discusses ongoing mental health care research efforts

Yoga exercises, smoking dope and spending time with dogs.

Those are some of the mental health exercises and research efforts adopted at UBC Okanagan to help students and staff deal with mental health resiliency.

As part of the Thrive Week of activities on the Kelowna campus, a forum about research efforts on mental health and well-being was held Wednesday at Mary Irwin Theatre in the Rotary Centre for the Arts.

Several professors talked about their current research efforts on the topic of building positive mental health care habits.

Zachary Walsh, an assistant professor of psychology, is conducting ongoing research on the mental health impacts of legalizing cannabis.

Walsh said legalization of marijuana is likely to have a minimal impact on UBCO students because of an existing saturation of use already.

If anything, Walsh suggested it could lead to a reduction in alcohol consumption and the substitution of cannabis for prescribed drug opioids because of less adverse side-effects, better symptom management and reduced withdrawal symptoms from prescribed medication.

He said campus student medical marijuana users show a preference for cannabis use to help with sleep (85 per cent), pain (82 per cent), anxiety (78 per cent), depression (66 per cent), appetite/weight management (56 per cent) and nausea (49 per cent).

“If you are using marijuana, the alcohol intake will be less because the desire won’t be as strong, although that could be because people forget where they put their drink,” he added.

“But these are questions that require more research to get a better idea of the impact of legalization and the lifestyle choice options that follow.”

John Tyler Binfet, education assistant professor who developed the BARK (Building Academic Resiliency through K9s program on campus), said spending 20 to 45 minutes in physical contact with a dog is a proven stress reducer.

“Our dogs also become a social catalyst because it brings people together which addresses feeling of isolation and homesickness for out-of-town students. The dogs encourage social interaction and a healthy distraction from the stress of the day that might not otherwise exist,” Binfet said.

He noted the campus have dog interaction sessions every Friday afternoon and the 52 BARK therapy dogs are dispersed across campus on Wednesday afternoons.

The yoga initiative comes from the theory of mindfulness, which has been embraced within the UBCO nursing program.

First-year nursing students take a course on yoga and other mindfulness practices designed to give students a mental break, the idea being those practices will be carried on throughout their schooling and into the stressful pace of working in a hospital.

Rooted in Buddhist traditions, the modern mindfulness movement in the West was largely sparked by the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979, his initial focus being to help patients deal with chronic pain.

By adopting a mindfulness approach to pain through meditation, breathing and physical relaxation exercises such as yoga, Kabat-Zinn found this cognitive therapy could relieve mental distress and improve functioning overall.

“I think at first our students thought it a little strange to be told to bring yoga mats to class,” said Jeanette Vinek, senior nursing instructor.

However, she said ongoing research of their nursing students has shown a 78 per cent continued use of mindfulness techniques learned and 75 per cent positive response to helping manage stress levels.

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