Students struggling with mental illness have an uphill battle. They may have a more difficult time making decisions, talking about their needs and maintaining relationships. Mood changes and increased levels of distress can make daily tasks more difficult, not to mention the pressure they can feel trying to hide their illness from their peers.
Shari Baraniuk, USask’s CIO and associate vice-president of information and communication technology, understands these challenges all too well. Her son, Matthew, a former Huskie athlete and College of Arts and Science student dealt with mental illness for most of his life and battled with ADHD, anxiety and depression. He passed away eight months ago as a result.
“For students coming into the university, it's almost like we're pushing them into the ocean. Students that are good swimmers know how to navigate their way and swim independently. However, for students who are challenged with a mental illness it’s like they have an anchor tied to their foot that is not easy to take off. So, we have to figure out how to assess the weight of that anchor to make sure that we're providing the supports needed in order for them to swim as good as the others.”
Shari and her family have started the Matthew Baraniuk Memorial Award to increase awareness and support for University of Saskatchewan students with mental health challenges.
The award will provide financial assistance of $2000 to an incoming undergraduate student in the 2021-22 academic year who has worked to overcome or navigate the obstacles of living with mental health issues.
“I have worked at the university for 15 years, so I know where to go and who to ask if I need help. However, some students who are coming into this big, complex organization don’t know who to ask for assistance, where to look for support, or what to do,” said Shari.
Shari said another reason why she and her family started the award was to remember Matthew, whom she described as a “firecracker from day one.”
“He started walking at six months; running at nine months; and then he never stopped. He really had no fear of anything physical.”
Shari said he developed a passion for sports at an early age. He was involved in numerous sports like hockey, track and field, and football. In grade five, he began to shift his attention to football as his favourite sport and had dreams of pursuing an NFL career.
“Matthew was truly a gifted athlete—a football star in high school. He was also an outgoing person, a natural leader and maintained a big circle of friends,” said Shari. “Matthew always carried a big smile and seemed to be happy.”
After graduating from high school, he was recruited to play for the USask’s Huskie football team, which he saw as an opportunity to develop himself further as an athlete.
Despite his success of playing football at the high school level, he often doubted his talent. Matthew put a lot of pressure on himself to perform well on the field and ensure that he was meeting expectations. “He was always on point with all the team practices, the training, the meetings, and played eight hours or more of football in a day,” said Shari.
In addition to his workload as an athlete, Matthew had to face his responsibilities as a student, where he experienced the most difficulties. Diagnosed at an early age with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the drive and focus required for academics was challenging, and he preferred to focus on what he enjoyed and had a passion for, which was football.
The lack of drive and inability to focus on his academics began in elementary school and his early high school years. There were days that Matthew questioned his ability and needed help. However, teachers and staff didn’t know the extra support he needed while learning.
“He could tell that there was something not right—something was just not clicking in his mind the way that it does with most people,” said Shari. “I was trying to learn as much as I could because he always kept saying, ‘Mom, do you know what's going on with me? Why am I like this?’” she added.
As this progressed, Matthew’s anxiety and depression began to worsen. “When he started to get labeled by teachers in school—of being lazy and not putting effort into his classes—that's when he felt like he was different from everybody,” said Shari.
Shari voiced the challenges that Matthew had faced, including the feelings of shame and the idea of being different from his peers.
Managing classes and sports at the same time brought an immense amount of stress on Matthew as well. In his first-year of university, he relied on substance use to help with the pain and anxiety, when specialists and physicians couldn’t help him.
“Matthew had this outward appearance of a popular, amazing, and funny guy, but inside he was really struggling. He wouldn’t let anybody get close to him to see the turmoil inside of him,” said Shari.
She expressed how important it is for students to feel like they have someone to talk to regarding these matters; to let people know when they are struggling, and she hopes this award will be a positive step to assist students who need support.
The Baraniuk family continues to advocate for improved support and research for mental illnesses. Shari recently joined Moms Stop the Harm, a Canadian organization that advocates to change failed drug policies in the country. She also reached out to Ignite Athletics, a local training centre where Matthew loved to train, to implement programs for mental health training.
“I want to normalize the conversations about mental illness at an earlier age and in an environment that typically has been very closed off to any discussion of weakness. There’s certain training you need to do physically, but there's also training you need to do mentally,” said Shari.
“It’s too late for Matthew, but it’s not too late for others.”
To donate to help students with mental illness, you can give to the Resilience Bursary or Resilience Scholarship, or set up your own award. Visit donate.usask.ca to make your gift today, or call Anu Kashyap at 306-966-1836.
If you know a USask student in distress, in crisis, or experiencing a mental health concern, or seeking same-day telephone counselling please contact the Student Affairs and Outreach at 306-966-5757.
Phone 1.833.456.4566 for Canada’s Suicide Prevention Service for crisis and mental illness support 24/7, if you, or someone you know, needs emergency support.