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Universities to examine their role in students’ mental health

Presidents and senior administrators from 36 universities convene for AUCC workshop about mental health issues on campus.

by Rosanna Tamburri

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Amid growing concerns over the mental health of students and other members of the university community, a group of university presidents has formed a working group to look at the role universities can play in addressing and dealing with mental illness on campus.

The decision to form the group was taken at a workshop on mental health at universities, convened in early December by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Robert Campbell, president of Mount Allison University, chairs the seven-member working group that will try to come up with a roadmap to help universities better respond to this issue. The panel plans to make recommendations to AUCC’s board and membership in April.

Until recently, mental illness “has been a bit of a hidden problem” on campuses, said Dr. Campbell in an interview. “Now that it’s more out in the open, we have to analyze it and decide how best to deal with it.”

The working group aims to clarify and set out the responsibilities and appropriate responses of universities in dealing with all aspects of student mental health, from the more common stresses and concerns that many students experience to the very serious, clinically diagnosed conditions, Dr. Campbell said.

Universities need to consider an array of actions in tackling this, he added. Small-town universities, with limited access to psychiatric resources, will have to respond differently from large urban institutions. But, he said, all universities need to examine their internal policies and practices – such as class and exam schedules, residence life, orientation activities, and the way they communicate with parents – to see whether these may be contributing to the problem.

Presidents also must speak publicly and openly about mental health. “We have to de-stigmatize the issue and make it something that we talk about in the normal course of doing our business,” said Dr. Campbell. “It’s only in that way that we are going to develop good policy.”

This is not something universities can accomplish alone. “We are not mental health experts,” said Dr. Campbell. Schools will have to collaborate with parents, health-care providers, mental health advocacy groups and even governments. As employers, universities must also look at how the issue affects faculty and staff, he said.

The AUCC workshop, held in Toronto, was attended by 55 senior administrators, including nine presidents from 36 institutions. Several high-profile speakers took part, such as former federal cabinet minister Michael Wilson, who is honorary chair of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s Transforming Lives campaign, and former senator Michael Kirby, chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

In an interview, Dr. Kirby said that universities have “a moral obligation” to take action, given that the onset of most mental disorders begins in adolescence and early adulthood, the same age when many people leave home for the first time to attend university or college. “This is a psychologically stressful time for everybody,” he said.

A recent survey conducted by a large Canadian university as part of the National College Health Assessment found that 34 percent of respondents were so depressed they found it difficult to function; seven percent said they had seriously considered suicide. “All of the anecdotal evidence would tell me that the number is no different anywhere else,” said Dr. Kirby.

Yet stigma continues to be an ongoing problem. Dr. Kirby noted that 40 percent of parents say they wouldn’t tell anyone if their child had a mental illness. It’s hard to say whether the frequency of mental illness among postsecondary students is increasing, he added, because research into this area is still in its infancy.

Several recent suicides by students on Canadian university campuses have pushed this issue to the forefront. “Every university president I talked to recognizes the problem and is anxious to do something about it,” said Dr. Kirby. “But they’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The commission is collaborating with several schools to implement its Mental Health First Aid program that trains university staff, faculty and student leaders how to recognize signs of mental illness and how to advise students on where to seek help. Sixteen colleges and universities have adopted Opening Minds, another initiative of the commission that tries to reduce the stigma around mental illness. Dr. Kirby invited universities to participate in a social media campaign targeted at young people this spring.

As well, 12 postsecondary schools – the number is growing – take part in a pilot initiative of the Jack Project, a support program for young people. It is named after Jack Windeler, who died by suicide in 2010 during his first year at Queen’s University.

Daniel Woolf, Queen’s principal, said more than 3,000 faculty, staff and students at Queen’s have been taught how to identify and help students in mental distress. The university established a principal’s commission on mental health, expected to report this spring. It has hired a mental health nurse and has counsellors throughout campus, not just at the counselling office. “I think we have reached a kind of tipping point,” said Dr. Woolf, referring to similar actions many universities are taking. “The question for me is can we seize the momentum while it is there, before it becomes yesterday’s news.”

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Kudos indeed for any attempt to de-stigmatize psychological issues. However, just so long as it does not lead to an abuse of the system. There are a few questions that should be the subject of study: has there been an increase in anxiety and depression among students, or has this remained relatively stable and is thus only becoming more visible? If the former, we have to ask why this is the case. One can only hope that a proper diagnostic tool is used to determine, for example, an anxiety disorder from acceptable level of anxiety; otherwise, one might find "opportunists" who are not putting in proper academic effort claiming "anxiety" as a means of being excused from, say, writing exams or submitting papers on time. Certainly many of us who teach have been contacted by an "anxious" student at the 11th hour before something is due, claiming said anxiety as an excuse. Such students who do not have underlying disorders make matters much worse for students with legitimate concerns.

Posted by Zarko, Feb 11, 2012 3:28 PM

Xhzang's comment reminds me of my graduate committee. They approached the work with the attitude: "I went through this process and it was hell. Now it's your turn. If you can't cut it, leave." They would have viewed any mention of mental health as a sign of weakness - and there's no shortage of professors in any dept who shares this view.

Posted by Dr.Doinglittle, Feb 10, 2012 11:27 AM

Xhxhang, I suggest you take some time to education yourself about depression...you certainly are misinformed. Kudos to the establishment for taking this topic so seriously, keep going with it.

Posted by Paula, Feb 10, 2012 8:09 AM

@Xhzhang Are you kidding me? That is not only insensitive but totally misinformed.

Posted by Frank Herbert, Feb 7, 2012 12:38 PM

Hint: it's all academic! Those who can't handle the system should not continue to toil in it! You bring back vocational schooling for most of these so-called "depressed" and I'll show you a happy camper.

Posted by Xhzhang, Feb 6, 2012 12:57 PM


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