For years, universities have been implementing mental health programs without knowing exactly what works best, says youth mental health expert Stan Kutcher. The Dalhousie University psychiatry professor’s new three-year research initiative aims to fill this gap.
Announced this past November, Pathway through Mental Health Care for Postsecondary Settings Project will test the effectiveness of a specific mental health framework at five different postsecondary institutions –Mount Saint Vincent, Saint Mary’s and St. Francis Xavier universities, Nova Scotia Community College and Holland College in Prince Edward Island.
“What we’re trying to do is come up with a relatively simple integrated model, with some key components based on the literature of what might be helpful, link them together, and study them,” Dr. Kutcher says.
The framework has three components: mental health literacy, the training of key faculty in identifying mental disorders, and the enhancement of campus health care providers’ abilities to respond to mental health needs, Dr. Kutcher explains.
The researcher acknowledges, however, that no two institutions are the same. “We’re not creating a one-size-fits-all model,” he says, “We are creating an approach that has various components in it, and these components are designed to be modified by the campuses to meet their unique needs.”
Canadian universities have greatly increased their mental health policies and awareness initiatives over the past few years, in tandem with a growing conversation about the issue across the country. A downside to such focused approach on mental health awareness, according to Dr. Kutcher, is that awareness doesn’t necessarily lead to a better understanding of mental disorders, or to reducing the stigma associated with them. Though raising public awareness about mental health is necessary, it should be “the beginning of the conversation, not the end of the conversation,” Dr. Kutcher says. “We need to talk smart instead of just talking.”
The need for better mental health literacy – a fluent understanding of the complexities of mental disorders and how to cope with them – is crucial because it can help student health providers improve their triaging abilities, something Dr. Kutcher says has proved challenging across campuses. Being able to better distinguish, as Dr. Kutcher puts it, “a bad hair month from a serious psychiatric disorder,” will ensure more serious cases receive the proper time and attention they need.
Dr. Kutcher’s project is not the first in Canada to address mental health issues on campus. In 2013, the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services, or CACUSS, published a report titled “Post-Secondary Student Mental Health: Guide to a Systemic Approach,” which makes recommendations for better student mental health care practices. Jennifer Hamilton, executive director of CACUSS, says their research was completed using an extensive literature review, environmental scan and collaborative discussions with students, faculty, and campus health providers. With this report, CACUSS focused on building a framework. Dr. Kutcher’s research will build on this kind of work by testing a framework.
The project is funded with a $600,000 grant from Medavie Health Foundation, a group that, among other things, supports youth mental health programs. Patty Faith, director of the Medavie Health Foundation, says her organization is thrilled to support Dr. Kutcher and is already looking beyond the three-year funding commitment. She says while no decisions have yet been made, “if the evaluation is positive and things are progressing and there’s other interest, then this could be an area that we could make significant impact.”
Dr. Kutcher says overall, he hopes the project will finally provide what postsecondary schools in Canada need: accurate data on which mental health interventions are most effective. Eventually, this project may contribute to an evidence-based framework that can be used and adapted across Canadian campuses, he notes, adding: “We just think that this area is one that has tremendous potential to really improve the outcomes of young people.”