Bearded dragons help university students confront anxiety head-on
'There's no shame in saying I'm having a hard day today'
Jill Jablonski couldn't stop petting the bearded dragon in her lap.
A graduate folklore student at Memorial University, she was under some pressure.
"Oh my goodness, I feel completely swamped because I fell behind on my homework and some papers," Jablonski said. "And a lot of people in my classes are feeling the anxiety of having due dates."
And that's where Yuki the lizard came came in.
Owner Bryanna Boland invited students gathered around her at the University Centre to hold Yuki, and her other bearded dragon, Ryuu.
Jablonski found comfort in spending time with them.
"These guys, they're perfectly chill," she said.
Lifeline for owner
For Boland, a second-year psychology student, the animals have been a lifeline. Boland said she wouldn't be going to classes without them.
"So they help my social anxiety. Normally I wouldn't be able to be on camera or talk to anybody without these two with me."
Boland said the bearded dragons, who wear tiny neckerchiefs bearing the words Service Animal and In Training, sense when she's nervous and crawl up to her neck to cuddle in.
She keeps them tucked away during class and said they don't seem to bother other students.
In fact, those who gathered around her at the University Centre appeared enthralled by the primeval beauty of the lizards, and their warm, rough skin.
1 in 8 students could have anxiety disorder
Anxiety is a very real issue on the campus, as it is across North America.
Data from a 2014-2015 Memorial University report, The Healthy Minds Study, suggests that one in four students have experienced some anxiety.
And one in eight might actually have an anxiety disorder.
"That's not unusual," said Peter Cornish, the director of Memorial's Student Wellness and Counselling Centre.
He said the number is in line with statistics from other universities, and also reflects the fact that people are talking more about mental health.
Cornish believes students have to learn how to fail, and then move forward, in order to develop resilience.
'Someone who really understands'
Talking is key for the student-run group, Memorial Minds. It's focused on breaking down the stigma associated with mental illness, including offering peer support in collaboration with the university's counselling centre.
Volunteers like MUN Minds co-chair Lauren Winsor get training before sitting down face-to-face with students.
"You really just sit down and talk to someone who really understands what you're going through. Like we're all students, and student life can be very stressful," said Winsor. "There's no shame in saying I'm having a hard time today."
The program started this fall and Winsor said more and more people are signing up for sessions as the word spreads.
She certainly can empathize with what they're going through. Winsor lives with generalized anxiety disorder and said she started having problems coping with everyday events when she was in Grade 7, which prompted her family to find professional help in the form of psychotherapy.
Winsor said constant bullying contributed to social anxiety, leaving her afraid that people didn't like her or that they wouldn't talk to her.
In her last year of high school, there were some nights when she went to bed and thought about how it would be easier if she just "didn't wake up."
Now a fourth-year psychology student. Winsor said her anxiety is much-better controlled, although the recent serious illness of a relative left her finding it hard to breathe.
'It triggered things all over again'
Students like Winsor and the other co-chair of MUN Minds, Meaghan McKeough, are determined to use their experiences with anxiety to ease the pain for others.
McKeough, a nursing student from Nova Scotia, found herself dealing with suicidal thoughts several years ago.
Her father died in a crash when she was six. Then, in 2012, during her first year at Memorial, an impaired driver caused the deaths of her aunt and uncle.
"It triggered things all over again," said McKeough.
Depression crept in as well. McKeough couldn't get out of bed, and it was common to wake up to sheets soaked from perspiration.
"The anxiety was manifesting overnight."
She wound up with a 0.2 grade point average, and on academic probation after failing four out of five courses.
McKeough found the determination to stay in the program, and said she's come a long way since then. She'd like to become a psychiatric nurse.
'Get a pet'
It hasn't been a happily-ever-after story for McKeough. She has faced recent mental health difficulties, but she credits medication, friends and counselling with making a huge difference.
She is sharing intimate details of her own life to help others realize they are not alone in their anxiety.
"Hopefully [we] have inspired at least one student to come into the counselling centre and talk about what's going on."
Both women have tips for de-stressing.
"I preach talking to someone," said McKeough. She also loves to go for a drive while listening to music, taking a loop through Torbay or Portugal Cove-St. Philip's.
"Get a pet," Winsor laughed, saying that her own dog changed her old habit of essentially locking herself in her room for a couple of weeks before exams.
She said the dog will come into her room and "poke her" until she goes out to play with him.
"Take breaks, for goodness sake," said Windsor.
- An earlier version of this article stated that the lizards are certified service animals. The animals are registered with an online company, although some experts say its certifications are false.Nov 10, 2017 1:35 PM NT