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New Canadian standard launched for the mental health of postsecondary students

The new standard is especially important for those suffering in the midst of a pandemic, say its adherents.

BY MOIRA FARR | NOV 05 2020

Universities have a new tool to help students stay mentally healthy as they navigate the challenges of their postsecondary education. Two years in the making, the National Standard of Canada for Mental Health and Well Being of Post-Secondary Students was launched during Mental Health Week in early October.

The new standard highlights the urgent need for university communities to deal with the rising numbers of students grappling with mental-health issues – especially in the midst of a pandemic. It is the culmination of rigorous research and consultations with more than 6,000 individuals, including psychologists, counsellors and students themselves.

“It’s exciting to launch this now,” says Ed Mantler, vice-president, programs and priorities, with the Mental Health Commission of Canada and a member of a technical committee of the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) that spent two years looking at evidence-based best practices in student mental health, listening to students and making recommendations. “The pandemic has highlighted some of the cracks in the system. Students are feeling overwhelming pressure.”

Universities across the country have already been deeply engaged over the past decade in developing strategies to meet the urgent demand for more services. The CSA-approved standard is a significant addition to the toolkit, says Mr. Mantler. As he points out, people tend to first be diagnosed with a mental illness between the ages of 18 and 24, precisely the time many are enrolled in post-secondary education.

The statistics are sobering: the 2019 National College Health Assessment survey of 55,000 students across Canada found that more than 80 percent of students had felt “overwhelmed by everything to do” in the previous year. Close to 70 percent reported feeling that “things were hopeless” at some point as well.

Helping these students is a difficult challenge, as each university seeks solutions that best fit their own student population. “The advantage of using this standard is that it allows institutions to work from their own unique starting point, pick their own priorities and then focus on the ‘how to do it,’ rather than ‘what should we do,’” says Verity Turpin, vice-provost, student affairs (acting) at Dalhousie University. “Now more than ever, we need to be able to adjust how we provide support depending on our students’ needs. Due to the pandemic, for example, our institutions are adapting to supporting students with new challenges posed by studying online as well as not being able to engage on campus with their peers as they would have normally.”

The standard is built to be flexibly applied as seen fit by universities of every size and in every region of the country, at whatever stage they find themselves in their own work on the issue, and whatever their specific challenges, says Mr. Mantler. And the standard itself, as it is used over time, will also continue to evolve and improve.

Both Mr. Mantler and Ms. Turpin say what they most appreciated in the standard-building process was the participation of students – graduates, undergraduates and members of student advocacy and lobbying groups all had the opportunity to voice their concerns about access to counselling, academic accommodations and mental health promotion. “We all understood how important that student voice is. Their contributions were lovely, meaningful and insightful,” says Ms. Turpin.

Among students who advocated for the standard is Madina Sutton, a graduate of the nursing program at Dalhousie and a member of the MHCC youth council. In her own case, she says, it was difficult to get the kinds of accommodations she needed, such as a reduced course load. “By having a standard at each university, you create a culture where the importance of mental health is accepted and known campus-wide, not just at the health centre.”

Ms. Sutton says she hopes that her work on improving mental health services leaves a legacy for future university students. “We don’t want anyone to fall through the cracks. This project is for helping absolutely everyone.” Mr. Mantler is optimistic about the impact the standard can have: “Universities can be change agents in mental health by working hand in hand with students. They can build a plan and keep improvising. Each school can design its own unique approach.”

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