Like many children, Norman O’Brien grew up emulating his parents. His father, Norman W. O’Brien, was a teacher who earned a Bachelor of Education in 1974. His mother, Joan Norris O’Brien, was a nurse who earned a Bachelor of Science in 1974 and a Master of Science in 1979.
So inspired, the young O’Brien had two goals – to study at McGill and to help people.
Yesterday, those dreams came full circle as O’Brien, a two-time McGill alum, was awarded the Principal’s Award for Administrative and Support Staff in the Management and Excluded Category for his stellar work as Associate Director (Counselling) in Student Services.
The presentation was made as part of the afternoon Fall 2023 Convocation ceremony at Place des Arts.
Compassionate, insightful team builder
“Norman O’Brien is the gifted and compassionate manager of the counseling team at the Student Wellness Hub. The team supports thousands of students and Norm’s leadership has a direct impact on the care they provide,” said Diana Dutton, Interim Vice-Principal, Administration and Finance; and Associate Vice-Principal, Human Resources, when presenting the award.
“His expectation is to ensure a sustainable practice, encouraging ethical behavior and best practices among clinicians, while fostering their personal and professional growth,” said Dutton. “Norm cultivates an environment of collaborative teamwork, recognizing the strengths and qualities of each counsellor, and creating a sense of belonging so that everyone on his team can shine and feel heard. He is an insightful psychotherapist who both manages and upholds clinical values simultaneously.”
But the road to success hasn’t always been smooth for O’Brien.
As an undergrad at McGill, he suffered with anxiety, panic attacks, and Imposter Syndrome.
“When I was studying here, I felt like everyone else was so smart, so attractive, so accomplished,” says O’Brien. “I felt like somehow they made a mistake letting me into this school.”
When he received an A as his first-ever mark at McGill, O’Brien didn’t believe it, checking and rechecking the paper where the marks were posted publicly.
“I was like, there’s no way I got a good grade in this class. No way,” he remembers. “I walked to the metro and turned around to doublecheck the mark because I just couldn’t believe it.”
While pursuing a Master of Neuroscience at Concordia, O’Brien dropped out due to mental health issues. After three years in the workforce, he came back to McGill and earned a Master of Counseling Psychology.
Shortly thereafter, he started working at the Student Wellness Hub as a therapist. “That was my dream because, after my experience at Concordia, the main thing I wanted to do in my career was work in post-secondary mental health,” O’Brien.
Three years later, he became a manger at the Student Wellness Hub, supporting the counsellors who work with students. It is one of those critical behind-the-scenes roles that, while unseen by most, has a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of many.
“Ultimately, my job is working with the counsellors and our team to make sure that students are reaching their mental health goals,” he says.
We have such a great, supportive team,” says O’Brien. “It sounds scripted, but everybody’s just trying to make sure that students are feeling better, doing better, and succeeding.”
A combination of challenges
For some, University life is the confluence of stressors. Along with the pressure of maintaining the rigorous pace of their studies, many students are also navigating life as young adults.
“A lot of our clients are dealing with stress and anxiety. But that could mean many different things,” says O’Brien.
“They could be having difficulties with their family; with their supervisor; with events going on in their country of origin. Some are graduating and not sure what they are going to do next. Some are coming out,” he says. “Many are dealing with the challenges of coming into adulthood while managing their courses and feeling they need to be a top performer at the same time. There’s a lot of pressure on them at a very busy time of life.”
“Our role really is to support students as they are forming their identity,” says O’Brien.
Helping those who help
But that task can come at a price. The burnout rate among mental health professionals is very high.
“Working as a mental health professional can be really challenging,” says O’Brien. “As a therapist you’re accompanying and trying to help people while they’re going through a very painful period of their life,” says O’Brien. “Sometimes therapists need a sounding board – not to share identifying or confidential information – but to help come up with ideas to better support students. Sometimes the clinicians come to my office just to process their feelings after a heavy session.”
“A big part of my job is helping the clinicians carry the weight of the stories they hear.”
Compounding the problems are misconceptions. “When I speak with people outside of McGill, they assume I work with a very a privileged population that’s just stressed out about not getting an A in their mid-term,” says “But the reality is very different.”
On the right path
One of the biggest changes O’Brien has seen on university campuses going back to when he was an undergraduate is the openness about mental health issues, and the accessibility of support services.
“I didn’t even know there was a counseling service when I was an undergrad. I was struggling with a lot of anxiety, and it felt like a dark secret because it would mean that I don’t belong here,” he says. “I felt like if someone found out, they would escort me off campus.”
“That’s not to say the stigma is completely gone, but it’s much less isolating. We talk about mental health far more than we used to,” he says.
“Today, we have more resources. People are having conversations about mental health. Faculty and administrators are taking courses on mental health first aid,” says O’Brien. “There are still a lot of aspects that can be improved, but I think we’re on the right path.”