The constant need for balance and purpose plagues most people throughout their adult life. It is particularly hard for the average university student to attain this when they have to battle feelings of loneliness and a need to belong.

The constant pressures of life, coupled with the personal conflict that comes with entering adulthood is enough to push anyone off the edge.

Alison Malmon recognized this and decided to start Active Minds Inc. after her brother committed suicide in 2001. Since then, many more branches have been formed in multiple universities across the world, including Trent University.

Active Minds at Trent (TAM) works hard to promote a holistic approach to student health on campus, and recently introduced the Talking Circle as a vehicle through which students can open up about their troubles and hopefully find some peace as a result.

A concept adopted from Aboriginal culture, the Talking Circle works on the premise that all participants are equals who can share their problems without fear of judgement.

Talking Circles started at Trent during this past summer as a trial process to see how the community would receive it.

They are now held every other Wednesday in the First People’s House of Learning. The circle will be held this week from 4-6 p.m. in room 102.

Arthur caught up with TAM President Anna Currier and VP of Finance, Mehran Monsef, to further discuss the inspiration and importance of the Talking Circle.

What was the inspiration behind the Talking Circle? Where did the idea come from?

Monsef: To give a bit of history, after arranging a few events this past year we realized that the one element we were missing was a strong sense of community on a more intimate level, so gathering students just to have a more casual interaction where students can open up was one of the main goals.

It was also a goal of ours to become more connected to the Indigenous Studies department and/or the First Peoples House of Learning, and to place more emphasis on Spirituality as part of a holistic approach to well-being.

After connecting with various advisors in the department, such as Jill Thompson, the Cultural Advisor and Counsellor, … it seemed to be the best way to collaborate.  Having attendance at a gathering similar to this, and feeling that sense of connection, I knew that it would be effective.

Currier: It was meant to create a way of connecting without necessarily being a part of our other events throughout the year. It is open to anyone and not something they have to be committed to. We really want to encourage acceptance and openness.

What is the aim of the Talking Circle?

M: On a large scale, I would have to say to regain connectedness with our peers, staff, community members…and anyone who wishes to come out to a Talking Circle. On an individual basis it offers much healing for everyone involved. It is an opportunity to listen and to be heard.

C: If you want to know someone else’s story, listening is the true form of asking. We wanted to emphasize a safe space. Wanting to compliment our bi-weekly meetings and planning it was really important to create something that was very much distinguished as a safe space.

What goes into the process of setting up a Talking Circle and how do the general proceedings go?

M: This is something that you would have to go to and experience on your own as it is not easy to explain in words.  It is also different each time and depends on the group and their comfort level.

To paint the picture a little bit for you, the circle has been happening at the Gathering Space—a beautiful room with natural sunlight and much positive energy. Jill starts us off by speaking a little on the history of Talking Circles, their importance and the rules. Two critical points in such a gathering are 1) respect towards one another, which is of high importance and 2) what is said in the circle, stays in the circle. A talking stick is passed around so whoever is holding the talking stick is the only person speaking. We sit in circle so everyone is on the same level as equals, which, on its own, creates a completely different tone.

There are so many things that go on in the circle, words cannot explain it; you just have to be there for yourself.

Are there any recurring problems that you see coming up among students at these meetings?

M: For sure. I think this is the reason why Active Minds exists. There are definitely common experiences that we go through—feelings of loneliness, loss of identity, financial issues, relationship problems. Things like that often come up in the Circle, and once a topic comes up, you have a chance to speak on what someone else has said by affirming one’s own struggles or something similar.

C: It is also a way for us to share resources. It’s not really like advice, it’s about everyone being heard and to have others listen to that.

You mentioned recurring themes such as loneliness, isolation and loss of identity amongst university students. What do you feel makes people in universities so susceptible to these feelings?

C: The competitive nature of university. Although this community is pretty small and pretty grassroots in a lot of ways, there are always members who are disadvantaged and it is not always easy to recognize these disadvantages, which is why initiative such as these talking circles are very important to give people a voice. They can help with the feelings of isolation and loneliness.

We are pressured very quickly to channel our energy in a certain direction, and not often are people at that point of self actualization where they know how to channel that energy. There are so many different things that can very quickly derail you from the very fast paced bottle neck that is the university system. So in such a situation it is very important to build a network of support.

M: And I think also the age we are at makes us more vulnerable to such challenges; we are in that transitional phase between adolescence and adulthood. You are feeling disconnected from your family and friends that you have known most of your life combined with all the pressure to define yourself and who you are.  They also say 14-24 years of age is where the onset of most mental illnesses arise if you do not inform/educate yourself and deal with the issues.

The Talking Circle is something that requires a lot of trust among the members. Can you give some suggestions for how a concept like this can be implemented in a workplace setting or a more competitive environment where people are less likely to trust each other?

C: I think addressing the issue of stigma is the first place to start from. I think the fear of coming across as weak is what stops people from making themselves vulnerable, and also the fear of how you are exposed, how people can monitor you, and how people will see you in a different way. People need to realize that the way people see you may not change in a negative way but more in the sense that they understand your depth. It is a two-way street. I think the more we target stigma, the more we can shift the view of vulnerability as a weakness and [view it] more as something that just makes you more defined and unique as a person. This means also educating people on certain issues that people keep under wraps.

M: Another issue is that people might not be ready to expose themselves because in exposing yourself you are accepting the possibility of change. Some people might not be ready to do that. I personally can recognize certain times when I chose not to expose certain things because I was not ready to address them yet. People can only accept change and healthy choices into their lives when they are ready, and it is important to be mindful of that because not everything is going to be shared at once.

C: It also helps to team build, especially in a work setting so as to understand people’s strengths. Those must be considered in order for this to be very effective.

M: Another thing to keep in mind is that you can set the Circle however you want, and bringing up a theme or a topic is where you can go really deep. Or you can stay on the surface and it does not mean that everyone has to talk about the intimate things that are going on in their lives. You can start small, which is what we did with our circle as well. I can see this in a work situation, i.e. at the Ministry of Natural Resources, where many people are being let go. You could easily introduce a Talking Circle then by bringing everyone together and discussing this topic, and opening up with “Everyone is aware that many people are losing their jobs. What are your thoughts and feelings on this topic at this time?”

Where can students go to find out more about the circles and other TAM events?

M: Well, coming out to a circle is a good place to start, but we also have a Facebook page, which is Trent’s Active Minds. We usually have information about upcoming events and opportunities for students and community members. You could also go up to the First People’s House of Learning department or Jill’s office on the third level of Gzowski College.

C: There is a brochure uploaded onto our Facebook page. You could also email us at [email protected] Also check out our website at: http://trentactiveminds.wordpress.com.