National standard for post-secondary mental health in development, students call for support

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By Madi Wong

The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) is developing a national standard for post-secondary institutions to follow, in order to create better mental health initiative for students on campuses. 

The project, titled “Standard on Psychological Health and Safety for Post-secondary Students,” focuses on adolescents and young adults aged 16 to 24, the core age group attending academic institutions, according to Sandra Koppert, director of programs and priorities at MHCC. 

“The point of the standard is for academic institutions to be able to assess themselves and get a sense of where they’re at and how the standard can help to provide a bit of that roadmap in terms of what to do next [for mental health systems],” said Koppert. 

According to Koppert, MHCC is a non-profit organization primarily funded through Health Canada. The organization has worked toward a number of programs and relating to suicide prevention, access to quality care and the effects of mental health. 

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), those age 15 to 24 are more likely to experience mental illness and/or substance use disorders.

“Within this age group, people tend to be going through a lot of transition, both personally and with attending school, often leaving home for the first time, [and] becoming a part of [the] emerging adult sector,” said Koppert. 

Despite post-secondary schools having some mental health resources in place, some students feel there is more that can be done to help students. 

Farzad Hasan, a fourth-year electrical engineering student at Ryerson, said he thinks the university can prioritize mental health services such as on-campus therapists. 

“Our [university] needs more therapists than what is available already. The wait times are long and students would benefit greatly if they could easily get sessions when needed and enough [of those] sessions,” said Hasan. 

The University of Toronto (U of T) has received backlash for its mental health system and resources for students following the deaths of three students over the past two years. 

“Our [university] needs more therapists”

Allison Gomes, a second-year public health student at Ryerson who previously attended U of T, said that U of T is behind on their mental health resources and needs to start taking their students’ feedback into account.

“A running joke [at U of T] was ‘Oh, we’re all just numbers,’ which sadly—we were. From my talks with other students across Ontario, not much is being done in terms of increasing wellbeing on university campuses,” she said.

Introducing sensitivity training for professors to help struggling students and creating an extra credit option for those who are stressed are among some of the suggestions students have made, according to Gomes. 

Gomes also said that many of the resources seem to focus on anxiety and depression, but because “mental health is such a broad umbrella,” schools should start looking at other disorders as well. 

“I haven’t seen many programs surrounding eating disorders, borderline personality disorders, OCD,” she said.

“Such facets of mental health seemed to always be swept under the rug at post-secondary institutions and more resources and education should become readily available for it.”

The standard project is currently under public review and consultation. It is also in collaboration with other partners such as Universities Canada, an organization that represents university presidents in Canada, and the Canadian Standard Association (CSA), who is writing and developing the standard. 

“A running joke was ‘Oh, we’re all just numbers’—and sadly, we were”

“[We] continue to engage with all groups of interest and a range of demographics within that including, but not limited to, students, academic institutions, administrators, senior leaders, health service providers…Francophone, First Nations, Inuit and Métis,” said Koppert. 

Following the public review and consultation period, “the MHCC and CSA will consider and incorporate feedback received. The final standard is expected to be released in [spring of] 2020,” said Philip Landon, vice president of governance and programs at Universities Canada in an emailed statement. 

“[A] standard can contribute to the efforts on campus by providing a measurable framework to support student mental health, identifying and promoting shared best practices for campus wellness, and supporting continuous improvement of student services,” said Landon. 

Similar to Landon, Koppert said that the standard can help academic institutions get a better grasp of where they are at and from there, create a strategy on what to do next. 

“It won’t happen overnight, but it’s about understanding where it is working and where they can make some efforts,” she said. 

Student mental health a “top priority”:  Ryerson president

According to Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi, the university has increased its full-time counselling staff by 20 per cent since the 2016-17 school year and has recently hired a counsellor to support students who are living in residence. 

“I can guarantee you that our students’ mental health and wellbeing…is a top priority for us,” said Lachemi. 

Lachemi also said that students can continue to access programs such as Mood Routes and Thrive RU. “We are always working to increase awareness among students on what’s available to them.” 

Ryerson currently has a number of on-campus resources for mental health including The Centre for Student Development and Counselling, staffed with psychologists and counsellors who offer free counselling sessions. 

In addition, the Ryerson Medical Centre allows Ryerson students to book both physical and mental health appointments. 

“[Mental health] is an issue that we’re facing as a society and we have to make sure that we are here to support our students,” said Lachemi.

A previous version of this story wrongly states Universities Canada was an organization that advocates and supports students. Universities Canada actually represents presidents from universities across Canada. The Eyeopener regrets this error.

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