What makes a strong campus mental health system?
The start of college or university can be a challenging time for students. They may be living away from home for the first time, far from their friends and family. They are adjusting to a new environment and learning to balance classes with part-time jobs, new friendships and relationships.
Many university and college students will look for mental health care, on or off-campus.
With thousands of young people set to return to university and college campuses across Canada, mental health advocates, care providers, post-secondary students, and staff weighed in on what makes a healthy campus mental health system.
Embedded counselors within each faculty or department
Different programs can have different mental health needs and challenges, said Bita Pourvahidi, a recent graduate of Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management.
“Like, in Ryerson’s business school, because it’s such a competitive environment, not only is there the stigma surrounding mental health already, (but) if you’re a business student and you have a mental illness you may be seen as weaker because business is so dog-eat-dog,” Pourvahidi said.
Queen’s University has embedded mental health counselors in its academic faculties and residence buildings over the past few years.
“It enables them to be aware of crisis point or stressors or times of year when students might be feeling particular stress, and they’re conscious of that,” said Ann Tierney, Queen’s vice-provost and dean of student affairs.
“It also increases access to students. Some students might want to go to a service in their faculty because they feel a strong connection to their faculty. Just like they go to an academic adviser.”
Centralized mental health service
“Sometimes there are so many resources that a student feels overwhelmed and they don’t know where to start,” said Tamara Sherwood, a student at the University of Toronto who has worked as a peer health educator, informing students of services on campus.
“I think all of these services should be in one place — the same place as any physical health resources,” said University of Guelph student Alyssa Logan. “If we keep them together, it will make it less likely that stigma will control a situation.”
“Definitely (campuses need) services that are clearly communicated to students and very accessible,” said Eric Windeler, co-founder of the youth mental health organization Jack.org.
It should not be difficult or embarrassing for students to go to mental health services, he added.
“Mix mental health services in with all the other health and sexual services on campus so you can go in to to talk to somebody without everyone knowing you’re going down this hall so you must need help with your mental health.
Proactive student outreach
“As you’re being welcomed as a potential student there should be some education about how (the university) is making sure they’re doing the best here to inform you about the challenges around mental health, provide you with some initial services and screening and some actual services if you’re struggling,” Windeler said.
“Peer-to-peer support is critical, said University of Guelph student Alyssa Logan. “I think most students would rather their friends know about their struggles than a university admin.”
With proper diversion of students based on their needs, peer support can also free up professional therapists for patients with more serious needs, said Waterloo graduate and mental health advocate Alicia Raimundo.
“It can make it so that more of the (professional) counsellors’ time is spent with people who really do need that level of support, and then people who really just need someone to talk to can talk to a peer,” said Raimundo.
“Right now we have a mental health system on a lot of our campuses where people are getting very skilled support when maybe they don’t need that level of skill, they just need someone to talk to.”
At the University of Toronto, peer health educators like Sherwood offer information on campus services, and a friendly ear.
“Especially in a university setting … illnesses like anxiety and depression feed off of loneliness and isolation,” said Sherwood.
“I find the more connected and validated and heard a student feels, the more they will share, the more they will grow as people, it’s really simple.”
Training for professors, TAs and residence staff
Professors, teaching assistants, and academic counsellors should be trained to be more attuned to the mental health needs of students, said Taryn MacDonald, who graduated from the University of Guelph this year.
“Oftentimes, these are the people who will be seeing students the most,” added MacDonald, who sought counseling for anxiety issues while a student.
“If a professor or a TA (teaching assistant) sees a student struggling during office hours or a tutorial, they need to be able to know how to support that student and how to offer them advice on the appropriate next steps (such as) referring them to counselling or accessibility services.”
One of the ways universities can try to meet the growing demand for mental health services is to better understand which people students turn to when they need help, said Erik Labrosse, director of student wellness at Laurentian University.
“Sometimes it’s a friend, sometimes it’s a professor, sometimes it’s a residence assistant.”
Windeler, whose son died by suicide in his first year at Queen’s in 2010, said universities should be training people in close contact with students — like TAs and residence staff — to recognize early signs of distress.
“When we did the digging back to what happened in our situations, we weren’t being told about it by our son, but there were lots of signals that would have spelled that things had gone way off the rails,” he said.
Strong transitions from on-campus to off-campus services
Those transitions can be especially vital for students preparing to graduate and leave the school.
“When I graduated I lost all of my support. The school really didn’t care about me except to ask for donations,” Raimundo said.
“That transition out of school, especially in an economy that’s not great, really sucks for a lot of students, especially students with mental illness.
“If we can find a way to support those students now that they’re going into the big wide world, with no structure and maybe no job, (and ensure) that they still have a connection to some support organization that’s committed to supporting them long term,” it will help.