In this TOGETHER
Ontario’s students, colleges and universities are calling on the province to take immediate action on the growing problem of mental illness on campus, and McMaster is on board.
The number of students with identified mental health disorders has more than doubled over the past five years, and the Spring 2016 National College Health Assessment survey indicated that depression, anxiety and suicide attempts are consistently increasing among Ontario’s postsecondary students.
The amount of students who are facing mental health problems has been skyrocketing. With nearly 46 per cent of students reported feeling so depressed within the previous year that it was difficult to function, and 65 per cent of students reported experiencing overwhelming anxiety in the previous year, there is a resounding need to address what is happening on campuses around the province.
On Nov. 2, a joint report titled, “In It Together: Taking Action on Student Mental Health,” was released by four groups representing Ontario’s 45 colleges and universities.
Looking forward, a review is planned to ensure Student Accessibility Services is able to respond to the increasing needs of students with mental health and/or physical disabilities through proper academic accommodations.
These four groups, consisting of the College Student Alliance, the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, Colleges Ontario and the Council of Ontario Universities, have determined that providing effective support for student mental health is one of the most pressing issues on postsecondary campuses today.
Sean Van Koughnett, associate vice president (Students and Learning) and Dean of Students, represents McMaster on the Ontario Committee on Students Affairs and in the development of the report’s recommendations, represented OCSA in its work with the Council of Ontario Universities.
“This degree of collaboration across the sector is highly unusual and demonstrates how important this issue is to everyone involved in post-secondary education,” said Van Koughnett. “Collectively, our role is to not let this issue drop off the government’s radar, to keep pressing until they commit to taking action.”
The report calls for a community-based approach from governments, health-care providers, community agencies, student associations and postsecondary institutions to include mandatory curriculum, an early-warning system throughout all levels of education, counselling and expanded use of technology at no cost to students, whether they live on or off campus.
Some of the recommendations within the report are far-reaching. For example, the report calls for the provincial government to provide free mental health care to all postsecondary students through increased services that are not funded through OHIP.
The importance of this report, however, is to articulate to community agencies, health care and government officials that postsecondary institutions and campus wellness centres are not able to support student mental health without proper funding and partnerships.
How does Mac hold up?
The launch of “In It Together” came a week following McMaster’s report that significant progress has been made towards advancing its Student Mental Health and Well-Being Strategy.
Since the strategy’s introduction nearly two years ago, hundreds of students and staff have been specially trained in mental health response, more front-line mental health professionals have been hired in the Student Wellness Centre and an improved student accommodation policy is in place.
Van Koughnett, who is leading the implementation of the strategy, noted progress made on priority areas, which include a new coordinated proactive approach to provide service and care for students in distress, new and improved Academic Accommodation of Students with Disabilities policy, additional hiring of mental health professionals to the Student Wellness Centre’s team and training for students and staff surrounding emergency mental health response.
More front-line mental health professionals have been hired in the Student Wellness Centre and an improved student accommodation policy is in place.
Looking forward, a review is planned to ensure Student Accessibility Services is able to respond to the increasing needs of students with mental health and/or physical disabilities through proper academic accommodations. In addition, the Student Wellness Centre will find a larger, more visible home within the Peter George Centre for Living and Learning, which is set to open in Fall 2019 and aims to make the Student Wellness Centre a more accessible and inclusive space.
McMaster has also secured an e-Campus Ontario grant to further develop digital tools that are designed to educate and support students and instructors in corresponding with individuals who have mental health concerns. Currently, the Student Wellness Centre has is working to initiate a program called Pathways to Care, which will have different information levels that can empower students to optimize their care through an app called WellTrack.
Peer Support on Campus
While McMaster is dedicated to supporting students dealing with mental health issues, peer and community-based services offer a unique addition to traditional psychiatry in a post-secondary setting.
Within the McMaster Students Union, services such as Maccess, the Women and Gender Equity Network and the Peer Support Line offer peer-to-peer support for students in distress. Volunteers at each service are provided with specific mental health training to ensure that students in emergency situations are met with the care that they need.
The system that currently exists to access counselling on campus, whereby students have to wait for a drop-in appointment for sometimes multiple days, is fundamentally inaccessible.
Hilary Zorgdrager is a volunteer at Maccess who believes that although peer support services are an important addition to an individual’s mental health, there is still a significant amount of work to be done surrounding the ratio of students with mental health needs to counsellors in the Student Wellness Centre.
“The system that currently exists to access counselling on campus, whereby students have to wait for a drop-in appointment for sometimes multiple days, is fundamentally inaccessible,” said Zorgdrager. “More awareness of the services that are offered through peer networks is really useful for students, but as previously stated, really cannot replace formal counselling and psychiatry.”
Wait times within the Student Wellness Centre have been an ongoing issue, especially for counselling services. Although, as of recently, new counsellors have been hired, there are only thirteen counsellors for over 45,000 students who are in need of counselling services.
“Strategies like [the Student Mental Health and Wellness Initiative] do very little to acknowledge the systemic issues that exist within formal mental healthcare providers at McMaster and other universities,” said Zorgdrager. “Peer support is really vital and important, however, it simply places the onus on students to support themselves through community without fixing the problems that exist in SAS and SWELL.”
“In It Together”
McMaster along with the Student Wellness Centre and other student groups on campus are working diligently to address the ongoing and rising issue of mental health resources on campus. However, along with several other universities around the province, the lack of resources and funding are making this a difficult challenge to face alone.
Rosanne Kent, director of the Student Wellness Centre, says that although both she and her staff work actively in looking at different ways to improve the care and programming that is offered within SWELL, providing care that meets every student’s needs is an ongoing and fluid process.
“In It Together” is a huge step in fighting for proper funding, partnerships and resources for postsecondary institutions across the province.
“The most brilliant thing is that all universities and colleges have come together and are working with students to deliver this [“In It Together”] strategy to the government,” said Kent. “I think that is the most powerful message that anyone can deliver, because we’re not talking about just a couple [of] universities, everybody is together on this in ensuring that we put mental health on the docket for our government.”
“In It Together” is a huge step in fighting for proper funding, partnerships and resources for postsecondary institutions across the province. Through collaboration, the government, post-secondary institutions, student groups, health-care providers and community organizations can guarantee that every student in need has access to quality care and services.