As the 2021 fall semester approaches, health care strategists at Canadian universities admit they are swimming in treacherous waters as they attempt to address the future mental health needs of their students, faculty and staff who were rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic.
While some universities are adopting a wait-and-see approach and fine-tuning their existing programs and services which were largely virtual last year, others are planning extensive and targeted online and on-campus health promotion and harm prevention campaigns to help their diverse communities build greater resilience and self-awareness about the importance of protecting their mental health.
Dalhousie University assistant professor and forensic psychiatrist Grainne Nielson says it’s critical that universities get it right.
“This time frame of life, between adolescence and early adulthood, is when a lot of mental illnesses emerge,” says the doctor who is also the president of the Canadian Psychiatric Association. “[Universities] should always be looking out for students but it’s an even bigger and more critical issue in the context of the pandemic.”
The University of Calgary is hoping to offer a hybrid of services, including virtual counselling for those people who find it easier talking on a Zoom call, according to Andrew Szeto, director of mental health strategy.
The university is building on its mental health strategy which was developed in partnership with students and faculty and first released in 2015. “We focus on the upstream, on mental health promotion, creating a caring campus community to better support our students, faculty and staff,” says Dr. Szeto. “And we get faculty to understand when a student is in distress and how to talk to students, even colleagues, how to refer them to resources, really teaching them how to listen empathetically and how to integrate mental health into teaching and learning.”
The Université de Montreal is building on its success using online resources and virtual counselling and group therapy to reduce its waiting lists for mental health services.
“Certainly, if students are on campus, we will be there, and we’ll intensify peer coaching and use sentinels who are trained to identify students who are having problems,” says Virginie Allard-Cameus, director of the Centre for Health and Psychological Consultation.
Some universities are taking advantage of new resources from the Mental Health Commission of Canada which last year released a set of voluntary national standards on mental health “to help postsecondary institutions create environments that foster student mental health and well-being.” To date, the standards and toolkit have been downloaded more than 1,300 times.
Student unions are also playing a critical role in filling in the gaps for students who are struggling with their mental health and financial pressures, says Matt Gagné, president of the Carleton University Student Association (CUSA).
During the pandemic, CUSA worked with the university and its health insurance provider to create a 24-hour mental health hotline which will continue to be available for all undergraduate students. The university also implemented compassionate grading reforms to help students whose academic records may be impacted by mental illness and financial pressures.
Mr. Gagné says this fall CUSA will focus on rolling out an online and on-campus strategy to help new students integrate into the university culture in a safe and socially-distanced manner. They will also target second-year students who were denied the on-campus experience during the pandemic last year.
“We’re well aware that there is a group of first-years who didn’t have a chance to have a first-year experience. So, it’s a priority for us to make the welcome back a priority with a very large club expo so students are aware of the various clubs on campus.”
Faculty and staff issues
Universities are also concerned about the mental health of faculty and staff. The Université de Montréal held a conference this summer on stress to give employees strategies to build their personal resilience. Workshops included mindfulness meditation and other methods of positive psychology.
Because of the uncertainty of the pandemic environment, and matters of personal privacy, representatives of faculty and staff associations were reluctant to discuss their concerns.
However, Elizabeth Hanson, president of the Queen’s University faculty association, said the pandemic placed extraordinary and unrelenting demands on Queen’s faculty, staff and students.
“We can’t prognosticate on what the health and safety needs of the Queen’s community will be and thus on whether the university is meeting or will meet those needs,” she said, but added that it will continue to work with the university to ensure health and safety are a priority in fall planning.