A new angle on mental health

William Lou
February 26, 2015
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes

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After months of preparation, McMaster has released its Student Mental Health and Well-Being Strategy. The new plan will improve McMaster’s mental health services and policies over the next year.

“We need to strive to be the healthiest campus, have the healthiest student body,” said Sean Van Koughnett, Associate Vice-President (Students and Learning) and Dean of Students about the vision of the project.

The plan will roll out five key priorities, beginning with the hiring of one new mental health support person at the Student Wellness Centre. The extra staff member will be able to provide an additional 1,000 hours of counselling and serve approximately 400 students.

However, this will not be enough to satisfy the need for mental health counselling.

“It probably won’t completely meet the demand,” said Van Koughnett. “We’re not going to completely eliminate the waiting list but we’re going to significantly chop it down, I would say, after this.”

The new support staff will be hired by the end of this school year, and another will follow depending on available budget.

Along with a mental health support counsellor, 100 McMaster front-line staff will be given mental health first-aid training. This training will help staff recognize symptoms and allow them to refer students to the appropriate services.

“The library has given us an example because if students are experiencing stress and say they are studying in the library, a lot of times things will come out in those types of situations,” said Van Koughnett. Financial Aid and Scholarships and Academic Advising are areas where this training could be implemented, although it is still undecided which areas will receive the training.

While the first two priorities address services, the next two put McMaster policies under the microscope. The accommodation policy has not been updated in over ten years, and does not accurately address the needs of students today. The third priority will adapt this policy to reflect not only physical disabilities, but mental ones as well.

It will also take into account that some disabilities are temporary and will provide solutions that better suit students in that situation. Accommodations could include providing housing options for those with temporary disabilities and developing guidelines for course design to reduce stress in the academic setting.

The second look at the way the policies and procedures address mental health focuses on increasing coordination among different areas of the university.

“You can picture a situation where a student has presented certain symptoms in housing, and maybe there’s something else that’s happened where security has encountered that student, or maybe it is in the wellness centre. We need a system that [those groups] are efficiently talking to each other so they can best support that student,” said Van Koughnett.

The fifth priority will bring the focus to research on the subject of mental health and young adults, a highly neglected area of research.

Catharine Munn, psychiatrist at the Student Wellness Centre and professor of Health Sciences, will be leading this research which will eventually be applied to improve McMaster’s services, policies, and procedures.

A great deal of research went into forming the strategy as well.

Munn and Allison Drew-Hassling, co-leads of the project, began their research in January 2014 in partnership with Student Affairs. In addition to evaluating McMaster’s current model of handling mental health, over 150 interviews were conducted with students, staff, and faculty.

“We could have easily just jumped in and tried to throw money at a problem, or a perceived problem, but not necessarily hit the mark,” said Van Koughnett. It might have taken a little bit longer than maybe what some people would have liked but I think we’re better for it now.”

“As we learn more through the research, as we build capacity in the Student Wellness [Centre], we might discover there’s another need we have to address, so I just view it as we needed a project to kick start the things we want to do but we will probably keep going on this for the foreseeable future.”

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