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Universities step up mental-health efforts

Students’ mental health seen as a priority by many administrations.


Acting on the knowledge that university-age youth are among the most vulnerable to mental illness, Canadian universities are taking concrete measures to deal with mental illness on campus.

“Many universities have highlighted this issue for immediate institutional action,” said Robert Campbell, president of Mount Allison University and head of a seven-member working group of university presidents on the issue of mental health,

“They are very much aware of statistics – such as that 75 percent of mental illnesses start before the age of 25 – and they have been looking at effecting change based on their own context, resources and needs.”

In many cases, universities have been putting in place strategies and policies to address students’ mental illness for a number of years. But a tragic series of suicides at Queen’s University in the 2010-2011 academic year pushed the issue to a new level of priority.

Last winter, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada held a workshop for university leaders on the topic of mental health. Following the workshop, the university presidents created a working group, with the aim of clarifying and setting out the responsibilities and appropriate responses of universities for dealing with all aspects of student mental health. Since then, a checklist to guide presidents in leading an institutional response and a toolkit including references were created; they are housed at an AUCC member-only website.

In many cases, universities are centering their mental health efforts on a detailed strategy or framework. Queen’s University’s Commission on Mental Health is consulting widely and preparing to issue a strategy this year. In October, Mount Royal University invited members of the university community to take part in two meetings aimed at developing a student mental health strategy.

Ryerson University had already formed a mental health advisory committee with four working groups that are collaborating to come up with a strategy. Carleton University, too, had begun work on the issue well before the AUCC initiative. Its 2009 Student Mental Health Framework: A Guide for Supporting Students in Distress so excelled as a service document that it was awarded the national first prize in the Canadian Association of University Business Officers Quality and Productivity Awards in 2011.

Among the best practices universities are adopting are those that identify student distress very early in the transition to university. The University of British Columbia’s Early Alert program, for example, enables students or staff to spot troubling changes in a student’s habits early and involve a trained adviser. If it looks like a student may need assistance, an adviser gets in touch with the student to discuss their concerns.

“The program meets students half way by extending a helping hand at a time when they may be apprehensive about reaching out themselves,” said Janet Teasdale, senior director of student development and services at UBC. “We want to identify these difficulties at the earliest point and before they impact learning and well being.”

Training programs for campus leaders are increasingly common. Carleton’s framework features four distinct levels of training, delivered to different audiences depending on their level and type of interaction with the student body. Wilfrid Laurier University is using part of the $40,000 grant it received this fall from Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk Initiative to set up a mental health education and awareness training program for faculty, staff and students to help them detect and address the symptoms of mental illness.

“We need to have the proper tools to respond to students in a supportive way,” said Adrienne Luft, whose role as Laurier’s new leader of the mental-health student support team exemplifies another growing practice – creating new positions on campus to assist with creating and implementing mental health initiatives.

In many cases, universities are tailoring their support to meet the needs of specific faculties, especially those where the risk of mental health issues is high and where students prefer field-specific assistance. The faculty of medicine at Université de Montréal, for example, created the Bureau d’aide aux étudiants et residents to assist medical students or residents who are having troubles coping. “Medical students and residents tend to be very timid when asking for help,” said U de Montréal spokesperson Mathieu Filion Rivest about the rationale for creating the office.

Other initiatives include peer-to-peer outreach programs, tutorial services and summer orientation programs to ease the pressure of the fall term for first-year students. Queen’s’ Summer Orientation to Academics and Resources was a big success in 2012 with more than 800 participants. Also, presidents and campus leaders are writing op-eds and giving speeches to help reduce the stigma around mental illness, something which, according to those with a mental illness, is even worse than the illness itself. As David Docherty, president of Mount Royal University, wrote in a recent op-ed, “We need to consider mental health issues the same as we treat physical health issues: real, natural and treatable.”

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  1. Anne / November 14, 2012 at 11:03

    This is an excellent step in the right direction. One factor related to student stress comes from their need for help on budgeting their finances. So many students are unable to cope with the financial pressures of university life and are left on their own to cope. Universities need to step up to the plate and offer financial counselling, how to work plan a budget, credit card debt etc. Public schools don’t prepare students for writing papers and parents don’t prepare their children for the financial aspect of living on their own. We wonder why our children have mental health issues????

  2. Benny Quay / November 14, 2012 at 11:43

    Yes, Anne is right. Parents do not prepare their kids. Oh, by the way, it is not the schools’ responsibility to do real life education. But i forget parents are just too busy these days as both are working to pay for their consumerism.

    I and my housemates were poor as university students. We bought large sacks of potatoes and rice and I would cut up a 8 oz. piece of meat in small pieces and stir fry such with cheap vegies from Chinatown. No packaged cereals either!

  3. Robinson / November 14, 2012 at 12:30

    Mental health problems are complex and some are much more challenging than others. I can’t help but wonder though, how much of the current mental health problems faced by modern university students is a function of finding themselves in the education ‘factory’ of classes with hundreds of students and no identity. Perhaps some of the mental health of students was more easily identified and handled on a case by case basis that focused on solving immediate problems by faculty with more time in smaller classes? Many student stresses that trigger mental health may be small and mitigated at a local scale, rather than at a higher institutional scale after they pile up and drive a student over some edge. Is the response to hire more counselors rather than more faculty the best solution? I am skeptical that more professional layers at the university are the only solution to this problem and the smartest use of limited funds.

  4. Shaylyn / November 14, 2012 at 14:10

    This article draws attention to a lot of the great work happening on campuses throughout Canada. In addition to the important efforts highlighted in the article related to early detection and support for students who are experiencing difficulties, post-secondary institutions are also increasingly exploring ways that they can create environments that enable all students to learn and thrive. This approach considers the underlying factors that promote or prevent student well-being and success; It questions what we could do differently in the campus context that might prevent students from experiencing these difficulties in the first place. The excitement around this work was observed earlier this fall when a cross-section of administrators, student services professionals, faculty, students, government and community partners met in Victoria, BC, for the annual summit hosted by Healthy Minds/Healthy Campuses – a community of practice in BC to promote campus mental health. The theme of this year’s summit was “Revolutionizing Campus Wellness: A Vision for Healthy Campus Communities” (

    Building on Robinson’s comment, it is clear that addressing mental health problems on our campuses involves providing accessible/quality care, early detection and stigma free environments BUT we cannot forget that we all have a role to play in designing the structures, processes, policies and norms on campuses and in classrooms (including virtual ones) that impact students every day. Small changes can indeed have big impacts!

  5. Steve / November 15, 2012 at 16:34

    Ironically, where I work our principal is making all the right noises about student mental health, but has instigated an excessively adversarial attitude towards faculty that has caused more of my colleagues to need to take sick leave for reasons of mental health. Universities should be concerned not only with students but also with faculty.