According to a recent article in Maclean’s, there is a critical and ongoing crisis at Canadian [colleges] and universities: students are at increasing risk of mental health problems, and these academic institutions are struggling in their efforts to respond. This reality reflects a broader crisis in youth mental health across Canada, which has seen increasing rates of depression, anxiety and suicide among young people over the past decade. And, the pandemic has only made things worse.
According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), young people aged 15-24 are more likely to experience mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders than any other age group.
Prior to COVID-19, post-secondary students were already challenged by:
academic workload and performance pressures
balancing academics, part-time employment and social interactions
finances (tuition fees and school expenses, rent, groceries and student loan payments)
competition for employment opportunities
preparedness for a desirable future
social development (building friendships, romantic relationships and independence)
Now, nearly a year into the pandemic, post-secondary students are burdened with these added stressors:
having to adjust to mostly remote learning
lack of resources (overall inaccessibility or inadequate campus, mental health or community supports)
social isolation and disconnection from friends and family
missing out on social development (romantic relationships)
financial difficulties (loss of employment, inability to find employment, parents facing unemployment, student loan payments, rising rent and expenses)
health and wellbeing (concern for family members getting ill, high levels of generalized fear and anxiety)
uncertainty about the future (employment prospects, high student loan debt, having to move back in with parents)
Over 60% of students say they’ve felt “more than average” or “tremendous” stress in the past year.
Almost 90% say they’ve felt overwhelmed at some point.
More than 40% say stress has affected their academic performance.
Around 16% have seriously considered suicide, and almost 3% attempted suicide in the past year.
-Sandy Welsh, Vice-Provost of Students, The University of Toronto
Post-secondary institutions have admitted that they are not equipped to solve the mental health issues arising within their student populations and have looked to the public health care system for support and guidance. In October 2020, the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) launched the National Standard of Canada for Mental Health and Well-Being for Post-Secondary Students, a guideline for post-secondary institutions to “be change agents on mental health.”
The Standard supports the following key outcomes:
raise awareness about mental health and decrease mental illness-related stigma
provide healthier and safer institutional environments
improve opportunities for student success and flourishing
promote life and resiliency skills that students can use at school, at work and in daily life
Even though post-secondary institutions are starting to make some positive changes, increased ‘buy-in’ and ‘action’ is desperately needed.
COVID-19 revealed the cracks in underfunded, undertrained and ineffective campus mental health programs:
Lack of front-line mental health personnel (institutions do not have the capacity to meet the demand of their student population so instead of weekly or bi-weekly sessions with counsellors, students are offered infrequent ‘15 minute wellness’ checks with advisors instead)
Lack of training about mental health for staff and faculty (like campus police, and professors who require mandatory sick notes for missed assignments or exams)
Clarity surrounding internal and external mental health resources
Out-of-pocket costs for private counselling and pharma care
Lack of access to counselling appointments (long wait times with no ‘off-campus’ options offered like phone or video-conferencing)
Lack of virtual or telehealth options (accessibility issues)
Lack of empathy (mandated leave policies which can force an academic leave on students who may potentially self-harm)
Academic intuition’s view and response to mental illness ( to broaden thinking and response beyond academic-related stress and consider the impacts of inequality, racism, sexual abuse and poverty)
The overall inaccessible, disparate, opaque, discriminatory and inadequate campus supports
Here’s what two students had to say:
“The programs offered [at the University of Ottawa] are very ineffective,” says Tausif Ahmed, a third-year health sciences student. “[They] aren’t funded properly or properly informed by mental health experts. And there’s no shared decision-making between the students and the administrators, which means that their decisions are not based in empathy.”
“For a lot of students, this is the first time they’re living on their own or even coming to terms with their own mental health concerns,” says Joshua Bowman, [of the University of Toronto]. “The university is in a unique position to cushion that blow. But there’s no explanation for how to interact with health and wellness. Once you get [to the health centre], you’re asked if it’s an emergency. But when you’re standing in a lobby with a bunch of other students who are crying, you feel like you’re taking up a spot. So you say it’s not that much of an emergency, and they tell you to come back.”
“The university likes to depoliticize mental health and make it more of a wellness issue,” says Laura O’Connor, a fourth-year political science student at the University of Ottawa. “They will bring in puppy dogs but they won’t talk about class privilege or the financial burden many students take on. They won’t talk about the lack of POC [people of colour] representation in the faculty and how inaccessible so many physical places are. There’s no acknowledgement of how they contribute to forms of oppression we know are linked to mental illness and general distress.”
Currently, many organizations are doing their best to fill in the gaps and some student-centred steps taken at some institutions have been encouraging:
As the COVID-19 crisis deepened and buildings across campus closed, some health services remained available, with counselling appointments being offered by phone or video-conferencing. In general, institutions are increasingly turning to virtual or telehealth options in a bid to reduce wait times and increase accessibility. As well, many schools are working with mental health organizations - like the University of Toronto who is partnering with CAMH - to overall their services on campus.
At Brock University, a panel of undergraduate and graduate students advises Brock’s Student Wellness and Accessibility Centre, where a number of different measures have been developed including workshops that more than 1,400 students have participated in thus far. The university also partners with local agencies, such as Community Addiction Services of Niagara, to help integrate mental health services both on campus and off.
McMaster University now gives students the opportunity to extend deadlines or reschedule exams by 48 hours through an online system for self-reported absences. This is allowed once per term with no mandatory documentation—something many student advocates have linked to stress reduction.
At the University of Toronto, during the December exam period, sessions called “Mindful Moments” were offered and in January, there were ‘guided nature walks’ and ‘lunch & learns’.
The University of British Columbia offers thousands of counselling appointments through an online and telephone service called Empower Me. In-person, phone, video and e-counselling services in multiple languages are offered to UBC students anywhere in North America, even on evenings and weekends, with 24-7 access to crisis counsellors.
Meanwhile, students are starting to organize, forming groups to support each other and demand change:
After the fourth student suicide in a year, a group of University of Ottawa students formed the uO Collective 4 Mental Health. They launched a petition that garnered over 8,200 signatures, demanding a roundtable with all stakeholders to discuss their concerns which including the hiring of more front-line mental health personnel. In August 2020, together with student advocacy group - the U of T’s Mental Health Policy Council - uO Collective co-hosted a summit on student mental health that included a discussion of “best practices for creating systems-level change in Ontario.”
“No one university is going to be able to tackle this problem on their own. We have to think about how mental health services on campus are funded, what are the appropriate services, how are they designed and how are those services interconnected with the broader community of services that exist.”
-Joanna Henderson, Psychologist CAMH
The journey towards meeting the standards outlined by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) will require multiple years of work and a big shift in ‘thinking’. Having clear goals and establishing support are the first key steps in implementing a large scale change in process. In order to establish long-lasting and centralized change, senior administrators, students and the broader community will need to work together.
At everwell, we’re stepping up to this challenge. We’re working hard on a number of fronts to provide post-secondary students access to mental health supports that are specifically tailored to their needs and current circumstances. It is our responsibility as mental health care providers, and as members of the community, to prepare our students for a future where their resilience, sense of self and coping skills will propel them to a brighter future.
In the coming weeks, we will be bringing mental health programs for post-secondary (18-25) students that tackle specific challenges like anxiety, depression, and more. If you are a college or university student (or a friend / family member of someone who is) and are struggling, we may be able to help. We’re here and ready when you are.
Sources and Related Resources:
Macleans.ca Inside the mental health crisis at Canadian universities
Ontariouniversities.ca Ontario’s Priority Issues - Mental Health
uottawa.ca Mental health and wellness - Did you know?
ctvnews.ca University students, schools grapple with mental health impacts of isolation
mentalhealth.csmls.org Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science Student Mental Health Toolkit
globalnews.ca ‘One size doesn’t fit all’: Canadian campuses desperately need better mental health services
mentalhealthcommission.ca National Standard of Canada for Mental Health and Well-Being for Post-Secondary Students
mentalhealthcommission.ca National Standard of Canada for Mental Health and Well-Being for Post-Secondary Students Starter Kit