Campus mental health: Time to evaluate which services work

It’s no secret there’s a high prevalence of mental health issues among post-secondary students across the country. Though most colleges and universities offer mental health services, they need to do more work determining whether those services are working, a leading psychiatrist warns.

“There are all kinds of studies that say, ‘We have a problem; look at these numbers’ but there’s a stunning absence of literature saying, ‘Here are best practices for universities,’” says Glenda MacQueen, vice dean of the Cumming School of Medicine at Alberta’s University of Calgary.

She hosted a webinar earlier this year about “Mental Health on Canadian Campuses: A National Survey of Services” presented by the Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health.

The survey evaluated existing mental health promotion, identification and intervention initiatives at post-secondary institutions across the country and was completed by 168 out of 180 institutions. It found the range and depth of available services is variable.


Data suggests the majority of Canadian post-secondary students feel overwhelmed and anxious, believe they have too much to do and say anxiety is impacting their sleep. The majority of those students are experiencing what’s clinically referred to as “situations dependent adjustment reaction,” says MacQueen.

“In general, suicides don’t occur amongst otherwise healthy but stressed people,” she says. That means students at high risk of taking their own lives have illnesses that would exist whether or not they were attending post-secondary schools. Remember, many are at the age when psychotic disorders begin and when it’s common for depression or bipolar disorder to onset.

Students who feel simply overwhelmed or anxious can generally benefit from initiatives like therapy animals, nap rooms and meditation drop-ins during exams. But petting puppies isn’t enough for students suffering from a serious mental illness — underscoring the need for colleges and universities to be “explicit in their social contract” with students and their families, says MacQueen.


If a student has a serious mental illness such as depression that has been difficult to treat or an eating disorder that has required specialist intervention, the student and their family must think carefully about whether it makes sense to attend post-secondary school right now and especially one that requires them to move away from home, she suggests.

An institution as well as students and their support system — which might include parents and mental health providers — have a “shared responsibility” to consider whether that student will be able to access necessary resources in their community and if not whether the school is obligated to find or provide those resources. If the answers are “no,” then at least students and families are aware, says MacQueen.


Understanding the wide variance of mental health needs is crucial, MacQueen says. She encourages post-secondary institutions to offer the following three prevention strategies:

Primary prevention: This type of strategy includes initiatives like petting puppies at exam time and outreach programs that provide new students with information on how they can get help for issues like managing their drinking in residence.

Secondary prevention: This strategy involves early identification and screening of students at the beginning of their mental health struggle — perhaps an academically strong student whose marks are beginning to tank across multiple courses. “Is there a way to flag that and have somebody find out what’s going on? Maybe the students is just partying their brains out but maybe there’s something else,” says MacQueen.

Tertiary prevention: What is your institution’s relationship with community mental health services? How do you get a student who’s struggling to treatment and what are your policies around reintegration or accommodation of those students?

Retrieved from the Toronto Sun, and written by Linda White.

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