We Need a Solution to Overwhelmed University Mental Health Services

Demand for mental health resources are some of the highest amongst students and millennials.

A major survey of 25,164 Ontario university students by the American College Health Association showed that between 2013 and 2016, there was a major increase in anxiety, depression, an 86% increase in substance abuse, and 47% increase in suicide attempts.

University mental health services are swamped, and students often don’t have access to the resources they need.

Being a student opens you up to numerous causes of anxiety and stress. And students often don’t know how to deal with the problem. Now, universities and other organizations are trying to address this problem through websites and digital content.

Mental Health Websites could be the answer.

Tricia Korbut, Supervisor of Information and Referral Services for ConnexOntario, has noticed the usefulness of mental health websites.

“Certainly younger callers might not have the same awareness of services that maybe some older callers do. But we also find that our younger callers are more willing to Google services for themselves,” said Korbut.

Korbut’s organization, ConnexOntario, are on the front lines of the fight against mental health problems for young people. Calls to the toll free helpline, which is run by the provincial government, have risen by 344% according to a Toronto Star/Ryerson study, a drastic increase.

Bigger and better services would mean more attention, and ideally, more people getting the help they need.

“We have had to increase the number of staff that we have working per shift. We find that the calls can be fairly complex, and require more than just, ‘here’s the information’. Everyone is a unique case, and we treat all the calls like that,” said Korbut.

Universities are also making adjustments to help prepare for the increase. According to the same Star/Ryerson study, “14/15 colleges and universities who were surveyed in Canada have increased mental health budgets by 35% in past 5 years.” Bigger and better services would mean more attention, and ideally, more people getting the help they need.

Why do we need them?

A study published in March 2014 in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR) called the “Do Online Mental Health Services Improve Help-Seeking for Young People? A Systematic Review”, looks at the results from numbers studies analyzing young people’s use of mental health websites.

This means that a huge chunk of the youth population are dealing with their mental health problems alone.

The study looked at a lot of different work from past research, conducted by a variety of institutions. The review called for more research. However, they were able to extrapolate that, in general, young people don’t seek professional help. In fact, only 35% of young people experiencing mental health problems seek professional face-to-face help. This means that a huge chunk of the youth population are dealing with their mental health problems alone.

Katie Robinette, Executive Director of Healthy Minds Canada, says there are many reasons people aren’t getting professional help.

“It’s not just acceptability issues. A lot of people tend to think, that when the first symptoms appear, that [the potential illness] will just pass, that’s it’s nothing to worry about. What happens is it doesn’t, mental illness gets worse with time if it’s untreated,” said Robinette.

Robinette also said university students can be particularly susceptible.

“When you’re a student going through a major life transition in university, stress and anxiety are there,”said Robinette. “And that can potentially slide into a mental illness.”

How are things going to change?

Organizations are not only throwing more money at the problem, but changing their approach to dealing with it.

Healthy Minds Canada is looking at different ways to make mental health websites more interactive and engaging. And therefore, useful for millennials.

“I’m creating a couple of apps,” said Robinette. “One is a sort of clinical trial portal to help people understand their symptoms and potential conditions. The other one is a peer support model, based on the AA 12 step model where people have sponsors. The algorithms are going to be used almost like a dating website to help people find a sponsor.”

New, more interactive websites and engaging platforms like apps will hold millennials’ attentions, and hopefully make them more aware of the issues there are. This could be a positive approach for universities to take, especially if they cannot provide the face to face professional help the JMIR study recommends.

Danielle Stewart Smith, is a coordinator for Healthy Campus Alberta, an organization also using digital media to engage millennial audiences.

“We can’t do face to face more than twice a year,” said Stewart. “But we’ve noticed relationships can be developed online in certain communities, and we want to engage these people in a more interactive way.”

The future is bright.

Healthy Minds Canada meanwhile, are also looking at new online strategies for their website, and like Healthy Campus Alberta, they aim to connect people with the resources that already exist.

“We’re doing deep data build of all the resources available at universities within our own website,” said Robinette. “Some community colleges really don’t have anything. So it’s about how can we leverage the resources that are available in the community.”

This is important work. One of the things emphasized in the JMIR study was the importance of  professionals having face time with patients.

“I think the potential we have to deal with these problems is amazing. The field is moving in the right direction.”

Finding solutions to mental health is a constant battle. But Robinette feels positive about the future.

“I’m really energized by the energy millennials have in working to deal with this issue,” said Robinette. “I think the potential we have to deal with these problems is amazing. The field is moving in the right direction. It has been doing so for a while but slowly, and now it is speeding up.”

*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.
Bailey Moreton

Bailey Moreton

Bailey is a journalism student at Carleton University, and no his British accent isn't fake. He wants to travel for free, and is welcoming donations.