Ryerson University is making strides to transform what can be the most nerve-wracking time of year for many teens — back to school — by offering "accessible" orientation that emphasizes mental health.  

"We heard from students that they really want to be able to have that calming environment throughout the overwhelming feeling they get when they come out to orientation week," said Akeisha Lari, coordinator of the student life program at Ryerson. 

'Orientation is that first point of contact'

The two-week program kicked off Sunday as more than 700 first-year students moved into residences at the downtown campus. 

"Orientation is that first point of contact and we get to introduce them to the Ryerson community," Lari said.

Ryerson University Orientation

Staff and volunteers wear purple t-shirts identifying them as 'Ryerson's orientation crew.' (CBC)

But this year is different.

Lari says orientation focuses on making mental health and wellness resources more accessible to new students. 

"It's really important for students to get to feel like they actually belong here because what we've found is that if students feel like they belong on campus they are more likely to stay on campus and finish their degrees here," Lari added. 

Body positive fashion show 

On Wednesday afternoon, students will put on Ryerson's first-ever body positive fashion show, one of more than 100 events with the students in mind.

Students, staff and volunteers of all shapes and sizes will select what they want to wear from donations made by the school's fashion program and local designers, Lari explains, and "strut their stuff" in the Student Learning Centre's amphitheatre.

Akeisha Lari

Akeisha Lari, coordinator of the student life program at Ryerson, says 'orientation is the first point of contact' with students. (CBC)

"What we're trying to do with that is show everybody, be who you are, bring who you are to Ryerson, we're here and we're going to support you," she said.

Stress-busting therapy dogs

Ian Crookshank, director of housing and residence life at Ryerson, says the university is paying more attention to mental health now because of the stresses new students, typically between the ages of 17 and 19, face.

Ryerson Ian Crookshank

Ryerson's director of housing and residence life Ian Crookshank says the university is paying more attention to mental health now because of the stresses new students face. (CBC)

"One of the reasons we have increased support is simply because we live now in a far more 24/7 world where they're constantly facing something," he said.

"We know that at this point in their lives they're still developing, they're still trying to figure out who they are ... so having the space to support students as they go through that is critical to them walking away from here in four, to five, to six years and graduating, and being ready for success in the rest of the world."

Therapy dog

Therapy dogs help fight stress, says Akeisha Lair, coordinator of the student life program at Ryerson. (CBC)

Therapy dogs are another part of the program.

The stress-busting pooches offer teens a place to come "pet a dog, put a smile on their face and enjoy that moment," according to Lari.  

'Need for awareness'

Chinelle McDonald will be mentoring students with Ryerson's Thriving in Action program — a new initiative through ThriveRU that provides supports for teens, including workshops that focus on well-being and learning strategies. 

But the fourth-year social work student says she struggled with her own mental health and wellness last year when her mom, who lives outside of Canada, became ill.  

"There was a lot going on that started to affect my academics," she told CBC Toronto. "I was really debating whether I should call it quits right now or take a semester off and go back home."

Chinelle McDonald

Chinelle McDonald, a fourth-year social work student, almost dropped out of school, but claims one of Ryerson's mental health programs helped her finish. (CBC)

McDonald says the support from ThriveRU helped her stay motivated and finish her semester. 

She says the university's emphasis on mental health is a step in the right direction for students who might struggle as she did. 

"There's definitely a need for awareness and creating and extending these dialogues beyond just a one day thing," she said. 

Mental health on new student's minds

Claire Rachar moved into residence Sunday from London, Ont. 

This is the first time the creative industries student has lived away from home. 

Claire Rachar

Claire Rachar is heading into her first year of creative industries at Ryerson University. (CBC)

While Rachar thinks orientation's focus on mental health is great, she says she's still nervous.

"In your first year you probably feel a lot of loneliness and stuff because you don't have your family or support system so it's probably a good thing," she said. 

Kaku Tumi

Psychology student Kaku Tumi, right, says he isn't overlooking his own mental health as he takes on post-secondary education. (CBC)

Kaku Tumi is also heading into his first year and says he is keeping an open mind when it comes to orientation.

"I'm hoping to make some new friends, maybe some life-long connections," he said. 

But the psychology student says he isn't overlooking his own mental health in the process.  

"I think it's very important that people learn and study about mental health and find ways to find healthy mindsets," he told CBC Toronto. 

New student orientation runs until Sept. 9. 

"One of the things that students can expect I think is that there are places they can turn to regardless of what their issue is," Crookshank said. 

With files from Adrian Cheung