Selkirk students break bread, discuss healthy choices and substance abuse
The challenges and temptations of college life can take a toll on students not equipped to handle the consequences of poor decision making. With the aim of creating a healthier post-secondary experience, students at Selkirk College have been coming together to break bread and discuss issues that revolve around substance use.
Under the umbrella of the provincial Healthy Minds-Healthy Campuses initiative, Selkirk College students are helping lead the way with a number of programs that get students talking about responsible social behaviour. Since November 2013, 260 Selkirk College students and staff have participated in Dinner Basket Conversations that bring together a multitude of experiences over a healthy meal.
“The concept of the Dinner Basket Conversation is that if you are cooking together and eating together, it sets up a cultural situation where dialogue happens that encourages people to reflect,” says Selkirk College Counsellor Robin Higgins, one of the driving forces behind the Dinner Basket Conversations. “We don’t know for sure that this going to change behaviour, but it can be the first building block of self-awareness for students to see how their behaviour is fitting with the person they want to be. They also get a chance to learn from each other and share the positive harm reduction strategies that they have developed.”
Through funding from Columbia Basin Trust, the Dinner Basket Conversations provide students with the ingredients for a healthy meal, a recipe to make it happen and a conversation guide around substance use that helps foster an evening of stimulating dialogue. The meals are prepared by the participants in classrooms, residence or student’s homes. The group then sits down to eat, talk and enjoy each other’s company.
“What we have found is students really like these conversations and they are surprisingly candid about what they are dealing with,” says Higgins. “They are open to talking to about how they have sometimes gotten themselves into situations that were dangerous or that they regret. They share what they have learned from those situations and give each other advice on staying safe.”
Taking Action on Confronting Difficult Issues
In partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association of British Columbia and the University of Victoria’s Centre for Addictions Research of BC, the provincially funded Healthy Minds-Healthy Campuses initiative started in 2004. Coming out of an identified need to promote mental health on post-secondary campuses and to reduce risky substance use, Selkirk College joined the initiative’s BC Campus Project in 2006.
In 2012, the Changing the Culture of Substance Use Project was launched with the ultimate goal of getting post-secondary students in B.C. to experience and exhibit healthy relationships with alcohol and other substances within the context of a healthy campus culture. Recognizing that the mechanics of cultural change are complex, the intention is to make small changes over a significantly large group province-wide.
Higgins and Selkirk instructor Leslie Comrie wrote a proposal and were invited to join five other post-secondary institutions that are committed to exploring substance use and healthy cultures on their campuses.
“We don’t have all the answers, but we are experimenting and looking at how people can have fun and a healthy relationship with substance use that might not lead to some of the negative consequences,” says Higgins. “We are looking at the best route to helping students learn about their bodies, their substance use and ways to be able to keep each other safe.”
Selkirk College Leading the Way
Higgins helped start the Selkirk College Tenth Street Dinner Club in 2012 after speaking with a Nelson-based student who spent an entire semester eating Kraft Dinner for three meals a day. Not surprisingly, the student was struggling with depression and not sleeping which in turn was making college life extremely difficult.
With proper nutrition forming the basis of a healthy lifestyle, the Tenth Street Dinner Club connects students with skills outside the classroom that are vital to success inside the classroom.
“We recognized that there are a whole group of our students who are experiencing their first time away from home,” says Higgins, who has been a counsellor at Selkirk College since 2008. “The whole idea of cooking, eating, shopping and dealing with a budget can be very difficult.”
The Tenth Street Dinner Club has proven to be a tremendous success with students from all different programs taking part. A Selkirk Dinner Club blog has been started that continues the conversations about food, health and finding balance at college. Last year the success of the Nelson-based dinner club spawned the Castlegar Dinner Club headed up by Donor/Alumni Relations Coordinator Joleen Kinakin.
“There is something about sitting down and sharing a meal that is a building block of culture,” says Higgins.
Conversations that Need to Take Place
The Dinner Basket Conversations have built on the success of the dinner club experience, using the food to stimulate discussion on substance abuse and evoke a positive change.
“I realized I was drinking to hide or because I was sad,” said one student during a Dinner Basket Conversation in Nelson.
“I get laughed at for declining alcohol,” said another.
When students tell their individual stories, their peers realize they are not alone. From there, students can take steps to empower themselves to make wise choices.
“Most students do figure this stuff out, but there is still a group of people who are pretty vulnerable to the draw of the party culture and that can sometimes go awry,” says Higgins. “What we are hoping with this project is that people can have fun, but figure it out in a way where they maximize their enjoyment and minimize some of the harms that can result.”
One of the important factors in the success of the Dinner Basket Conversations is the leadership provided by students in the Selkirk College Nursing Program. Third and fourth year Nursing Program students have been brought into the program as part of their leadership placements. The students have taken the leadership role in the program by facilitating the conversations and documenting the outcomes.
Momentum Strong for Program
Through the Changing Cultures of Substance Use Project, Selkirk College received funding to produce a video on the Dinner Basket Conversations. The five-minute video provides insight into the learning community of students and staff.
The video is just one of the tools Selkirk College is using to help lead the way with post-secondary institutions across the province. The program will also be featured in an upcoming webinar on March 26 titled “Using Food & Dialogue to Create Connections.”
“The Dinner Basket Conversations video very aptly captures the inviting ambience of student engagement around eating together that Selkirk College has designed and hosted to build connectedness and promote healthier relationships with substances in their community,” says Tim Dyck, Research Associate at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC. “Kudos for this endeavor to foster constructive dialogue among peers on such meaningful issues of student experience.”
Over the last couple months, the Dinner Basket Conversations have expanded beyond talk about substance use and delved into topics such as healthy relationships and sexual consent. It’s all a part of making the post-secondary experience more positive and the learning outcomes more successful.
“The main question we are asking is how do we make the Selkirk culture healthy so that more people feel supported and a sense of connection?” says Higgins. “The students need to know that there are people they can turn to and those people can help build skills to manage their own health and well-being.”
Learn more about the Selkirk College Dinner Basket Conversations at selkirk.ca/services/student-support-services/healthy-campus-initiatives.