Carleton’s FITA program highlighted in Ottawa Citizen

The Ottawa Citizen’s Feb. 10 editorial “Let’s Talk Funding” and the Feb. 9 front-page article pleading “Let’s Do Something!” are music to our ears.

Several years ago we came to a revelation. Looking at the success of a cohort of post-secondary students with learning disabilities (from very unlikely to graduate, to beating the provincial graduation rate of the general population), we realized the central components of our “best practices” LD model were applicable to other vulnerable students.

As director of the Paul Menton Centre, and as a registered psychologist, both for over 30 years, we always knew that some of the many supports we provide students with disabilities would help other students who do not fit the disability office or traditional student services. As a result, we developed FITA (From Intention to Action) for students without a DSM-5 diagnosis, but who present as “stressed” and “overwhelmed.” That is, the program focuses on students who are struggling with mental health issues (and who, not coincidentally, are often struggling with academic performance), providing targeted, comprehensive supports based on individual assessment, intensive one-on-one counselling, learning strategies, and stringent program evaluation measures embedded into every component.

In this way, FITA not only evaluates and adjusts the program according to what actually works, it is preventative in engaging students early on, before the potential for worsening mental health.

FITA is different from other programs at other colleges and universities for several reasons: Our experience and research show that assessment coupled with a well-established therapeutic alliance are key to understanding an individual, and determining the best, most effective supports. Research also shows that approximately 12 “therapeutic alliance” sessions are required in order for individual transformation to take place. For this reason, students are required to commit to the program components upon admission to FITA, which has also helped to address the thorny issue of student engagement.

Bottom line: FITA is succeeding beyond our expectations with regard to both mental health and academic achievement measures.

The other compelling feature about FITA is that it is cheap, especially when compared to any service within the health care system. FITA requires the presence and supervision of a registered psychologist, and some limited paid staff, but most of the counselling hours come from Master’s and PhD student interns who complete between eight and 12 months with us. In this way, therapeutic alliance is established by people who understand the pressures of post-secondary life, and our interns are given a very high quality practicum in a growing field.

And the field of providing mental health supports to post-secondary students needs to grow quickly. Two astonishing facts will help to put this statement into perspective: Approximately 75 per cent of diagnosis of mental illness happens between the ages of 16 and 24; and fully 80 per cent of Ontarians in this age range will pass through our colleges and universities. When we consider the statistical funnel of young people flowing through our institutions within this critical age range, maybe, just maybe, this mental health crisis might better be framed as the opportunity of a lifetime.

Bell is to be congratulated, for its successful anti-stigma “Let’s Talk” campaign. Still, at a certain point success can become a mixed blessing, if awareness is not matched by availability of treatment. Young people are courageously stepping forward in ever-increasing numbers, and if we do not expand mental health capacity to fit the new awareness, we will have failed a generation of very aware people.

FITA is scalable and transferable and was very consciously conceived to become a significant piece of our provincial post-secondary mental health strategy. The University of Toronto and Humber College have successfully implemented FITA, and there are colleges and universities in Ontario intending to do so in the near future. Many other post-secondary institutions would like to, but cannot find the funds, even though we have proven that FITA provides savings to Health and Counselling Services as well as the Disability Office.

FITA directly helps students, in terms of their educational success and subsequent lifetime earnings, and most important, with their priceless individual mental health. The next campaign building on “Let’s Talk” might logically be called “Let’s Act.” So yes, let’s talk funding because the public might just be pleasantly surprised to learn what we are able to achieve and for what costs. FITA could be in every post-secondary institution in Ontario for a very reasonable cost. Let’s Act Now.

Larry McCloskey is director of the Paul Menton Centre for Students with Disabilities, at Carleton University. Dr. John Meissner is the manager of FITA.

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