Minding what matters: Part II

in 2013, The Toronto Star published the results of a study conducted by the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services measuring the mental health of more than 30,000 students at 34 colleges and universities across the country. Eighty-nine per cent of the participants felt “overwhelmed by all they had to do” and 86.9 per cent reported feeling “overwhelming anxiety.” Terrifyingly, nearly 10 per cent of those surveyed had “seriously considered suicide”. Over the past several years, society’s understanding of mental health has dramatically expanded to incorporate a wide range of innovative approaches to treatment and prevention. Much of this work has been developed on university campuses. In an effort to measure this progress, as well as analyze where we as a post-secondary educational community can still do more, The Varsity’s Editorial Board has elected to publish a three-part series on mental health on campus. This is its second installment.

It is something of a truism that universities are a major source of stress, and consequently mental health problems, for students. In light of the newfound independence that characterizes post-secondary education, the pressures of juggling deadlines, exams, and extra-curricular programs suddenly fall squarely upon individual students’ shoulders.

At the University of Toronto in particular, our academic reputation of boundless excellence adds additional weight to this precarious burden. Our colossal, decentralized campus has long been criticized for failing to foster a supportive environment — there are over 68,000 undergraduate students, over 16,000 graduate students, and almost 20,000 faculty and staff members, all spread across three distinct campuses. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, U of T’s 2014 Report of the Provostial Advisory Committee on Student Mental Healthstates, “at the University, the number of students registering with Accessibility Services for reasons related to mental health has doubled in the past five years.”

As it stands, there seems a sizeable gap between the extent to which mental health issues are affecting students, and the support that is available to them. We have heard from friends who have struggled with anxiety to the point of late-withdrawing from courses, or who have reported negative or insufficient experiences with Health Services’ counseling options, often citing long wait times, or the inability to get in touch with counsellors. We have also heard moreominous stories, such as when students were reportedly asked to leave residence after revealing their serious mental health issues. The mental health crisis with which the university is now confronted threatens to destabilize students’ learning, and is in fact already doing so.

With the recognition that universities are prone to fostering mental health problems amongst their students come questions about the university’s responsibility to remedy the issue. Unfortunately, the extent to which the university — as an institution almost exclusively dedicated to research and education — is responsible for and actually capable of providing specific mental health services is unclear.

In their Mission and Purpose statement, U of T has expressly committed itself to “fostering an academic community in which the learning and scholarship of every member may flourish,” not to mention assisting students in realizing “their physical and emotional growth and well-being.” Given that poor mental health can significantly deplete students’ ability to learn and flourish in university, U of T, according to its mandate, must have a stake in combatting the recent spike in mental health problems on campus.

While it is tempting to believe increased funding or the implementation of a specific service provider will solve the problem, there is no silver bullet solution. Mental health is a complex issue acted on by various interrelated factors; as such, it requires a holistic and multi-faceted framework to be understood.

it requires a holistic and multi-faceted framework to be understood

To its credit, U of T has recognized the need for, and pledged its commitment to, a “systems approach” of promoting mental wellness. Their strategy outlined in the Report of the Provostial Advisory Committee on Student Mental Health uses a “mental health continuum” to acknowledge all students and their varying needs, from difficulties with stress-management to “crisis” states. It also commits to the fostering of a pervasive mental-wellness culture, which would increase awareness of mental health issues for faculty, staff, and students alike.

The plan constitutes an optimistic, earnest aim. Recently, it manifested in tangible changes that saw Counselling and Psychological Services integrated with Health & Wellness. But perhaps most notably, the university has recognized that, as an educational institution, it is uniquely positioned to prevent mental health problems, rather than to act as a service provider

What the university must recognize is that the implementation of a mental health plan based on the “systems approach” will be fraught with difficulties — not the least of which will be the challenge of measuring progress when the students most in need of support are so susceptible to losing touch with the system. It is further challenged by the broader mental health service deficit that exists in this province, the reason that counselling (especially counselling that is covered by Ontario Health Insurance Plan) is in such high demand, and such short supply. These kinds of challenges may mean that the university will need to adapt its plan according to the changing mental health environment, and to play a role in improving mental health services on a broader scale.

Nonetheless, it is essential to U of T’s statement of purpose that the school not abandon these aims. In this academic institution, learning cannot fully flourish without addressing the mental health of students.

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