On January 25th, 2017, the University of Guelph made the news as students raised a petition to ask for better mental health resources on campus. The university has experienced four student suicides as of November 1st, 2016.
So we asked, what is the state of mental health services on post-secondary campuses, and what more needs to be done?
Post-secondary mental health: the stats
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), suicide is the second leading cause of death in youth aged 15-24.
44.4% of students felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.
The National College Health Assessment, administered by the American College Association and released in the spring of 2016, also found that 59.6% of students reported feeling hopeless in the last 12 months. 44.4% of students felt so depressed that it was difficult to function. Another 13% percent of respondents seriously considered suicide, and 2.1% actually attempted it.
“The numbers demonstrate that post-secondary mental health is an issue that needs to be addressed,” said Dr John Walker, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Manitoba.
“In addition, many students who seek help for mental illness are referred to services off campus for longer term counselling, which is a problem,” said Dr Tayyab Rashid, a researcher at the University of Toronto Scarborough.
“In my experience, most students who get referred out are not satisfied with their services,” he said. “Universities need to invest more into their services, because if they don’t, who will?”
Lack of studies into the effectiveness and availability of resources
Although statistics demonstrate clear prevalence of mental illness amongst university students, few studies have been done to look into what supports there are for students, and how effective they are.
“Not every student, especially with mental health issues, will come and tell you ‘no, this didn’t really work for me.’ There has been a rise in awareness, but not effectiveness of treatment.”
One of the few studies done was a national survey of 168 out of 180 Canadian Institutions. The study, published in the Canadian Journal of Psychology in 2016, found that while 91% of responding institutions offered some form of counselling for students and 66.4% offered crisis counselling, often the services that existed had difficulty responding to the demand of students.
“We don’t evaluate the outcome of counselling and psychotherapy offered to students,” said Rashid. “Not every student, especially with mental health issues, will come and tell you ‘no, this didn’t really work for me.’ There has been a rise in awareness, but not effectiveness of treatment.”
Rashid went on to explain another gap in the mental health system is cultural sensitivity, especially for international students, and that is something that many on-campus counsellors are not trained in.
Another study, led by Dr Walker, concluded that when students sought help at off-campus for mental health services, the insurance plans they had through their institutions was inadequate to cover the costs associated with counselling and therapy.
The student experience
Of course, no one feels the limits of counselling like students themselves. Nathan Woodruff, a Masters of Social Work student at Carleton University, sought counselling for stress during his time at Carleton, as well as during his undergrad at Nipissing University.
“The problem was, I was really stressed, but when I tried to make an appointment it was a three week wait,” he said. “By the time I got in to a see a counsellor, I had already worked through the stress on my own.”
He added that one of the difficulties about seeking support for mental health on campuses is the ‘competition culture.’ Students are constantly competing and trying not to show weakness.
“That’s especially true if you’re a man,” he added, “because men are supposed to always be strong, to never show weakness in front of anyone.”
“I don’t know if this is what it’s like at other schools, but it’s a really long, difficult process to get an appointment at U of T.”
His experience with wait times was echoed by a University of Toronto student who spoke anonymously about her experience seeking treatment for an eating disorder and a panic disorder.
“I don’t know if this is what it’s like at other schools, but it’s a really long, difficult process to get an appointment at U of T.” She said. “If you’re in an emergency crisis situation, we have a lot of help-lines and stuff, and we’re really good about that kind of quick service, but if you have a long term condition, it can take months to get treatment.”
She added that although actually accessing services was difficult, the U of T campus does an ‘excellent job of erasing stigma and having conversations about student mental health.’
One way to combat the long wait times for counselling is a system in place at the University of Waterloo that offers faculty-specific counselling.
“It’s really good because when you go in to see the counsellors, they have a good idea of what pressure is on you academically, such as your course load and things like that,” said a second-year science student at the university, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
What is being done
Although the lack of studies into mental health services is concerning, this is changing, according to Michelle Baulch, a registered psychotherapist and Assistant Manager of Student Success at Carleton University and a contributor to Carleton’s Mental Health Framework.
Students play an important role in the development of mental health services on campus—often it’s student unions who negotiate and administer the health plans available to students.
“The days are gone where we just implement programs,” Baulch said, as a key part of the development of Carleton’s framework was the input of students, and ongoing research is being carried out to ensure the programs are well-received and implemented effectively. Other schools with specific frameworks include Memorial University of Newfoundland, Queen’s University, and University of Calgary, among others.
Dr John Walker agrees. Students play an important role in the development of mental health services on campus—often it’s student unions who negotiate and administer the health plans available to students.
“The conversations about mental health on campuses has also led to the creation of grassroots organizations that connect institutions and provide a forum for communication about mental health and initiatives provincially, and eventually nationally, between institutions,” said Danielle Stewart Smith, the coordinator of Healthy Campus Alberta, which is one such organization.
“Learning what other campuses are doing across the province enables us to make sure that we’re not recreating the wheel, but that we’re actually learning from each other’s innovation and that we’re able to adapt that to new contexts,” she said.
“Similar organizations exist in Ontario and British Columbia, as well; the Center for Innovation in Campus Mental Health is Ontario based, and Healthy Minds Healthy Campuses operates out of BC,” said Stewart-Smith.
“There has been such an incredible awareness of the need to come together and collaborate on this particular conversation,” she added.
*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.