It’s important to work together to improve students’ mental health

Universities are meant to be healthy educational environments in which students can grow to their optimal potential.

To achieve that goal, however, enhanced mental health and wellness services tailored specifically to the university population are required —and urgently.

According to the most recent National College Health Assessment, half of Canadian students reported feelings of hopelessness, almost 90 per cent felt overwhelmed, over one-third felt so depressed it was difficult to function and almost 10 per cent had considered suicide in the previous year. More students than ever are arriving on campus already having experienced mental health problems. And increasing numbers of students report complex mental health problems while at university.

So, as Bell’s Let’s Talk initiative shines a welcome spotlight on mental health this week, here’s what three universities are doing to improve services for students who face mental health challenges.

McGill, Queen’s and University of Toronto have taken concrete action to address the growing needs of their students. With the support of The Rossy Family Foundation, the universities are seeking new ways to ensure that campuses are welcoming, inclusive and supportive and able to offer enhanced services.

Here in Montreal, McGill is undertaking an ambitious strategic review of their many existing health and wellbeing services (including mental health services) to assess how best to serve their students. This thoughtful planning process may be useful as a model for other institutions looking to create healthy campus policies and programs.

In Ontario, University of Toronto and Queen’s are expanding and evaluating innovative mental health programs. One such program is embedded counselling, in which some counselling services are moved out of the central wellness service and established within individual faculties on campus. These local services help reduce stigma and offer easier access to care and programming that is customized to the needs, culture and environment of each faculty. Another type of program involves offering new students skill-building sessions to help with the transition to university, covering topics like study skills and coping with stress.

More important, McGill, Queen’s and the University of Toronto are reaching across institutional boundaries to ensure that Canada’s bright young students have access to the best mental health and wellness services, regardless of their university of choice. These three universities are working together to innovate, evaluate and disseminate best practices around campus mental health, reflecting a deep national concern for the well-being of our youth. This joint initiative reflects the sector’s strong commitment to collaboration.

Ultimately, the universities’ efforts to plan their mental health services thoughtfully, share their knowledge and implement evidence-based mental health programming should pay off not just for students, but for Canada, too. A 2015 study by the Rand Corporation suggests that for every dollar invested in prevention and early intervention programs in the university setting, the net societal benefit is over $3.

University students make up a larger proportion of Canada’s youth than ever before. According to Statistics Canada, the population of full-time university students in Canada has increased by around 30 per cent since 2000. At the same time, universities have seen the demand for on-campus mental health services increase at an exponentially higher rate.

Finding the right balance between intellectual stimulation, academic demands, social engagement opportunities and empathic support that will allow students to thrive is the ultimate goal. The philanthropic sector has an important role to play in achieving this goal by supporting educational institutions as they develop and test new programming that might not fit neatly into existing — and limited — operating budgets.

We know we are not alone in our concern for student mental health. Great work is being done on campuses all over the country. We invite universities, philanthropic organizations, faculty, parents and, of course, students across Canada to join us in our commitment to creating healthy campuses together.

Sara Pedersen is a program director at The Rossy Family Foundation, a Montreal-based philanthropic foundation that funds initiatives in mental health, health care, education and the arts. This article was written in collaboration with McGill University, Queen’s University and the University of Toronto.

More from Sara Pedersen, Special to Montreal Gazette

Article retrieved from the Montreal Gazette Website.

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