Campus mental health has been an ongoing issue for most of my nearly two decades in higher education in Canada. In recent years, various groups, echoed by the media, have framed this issue as a crisis. And, indeed, I can confirm from my vantage point that mental health and wellness is a top concern on our campus, as the needs of students continue to increase and the demand for services outstrips resources.
That being said, there are a few facts that are often not discussed as part of the debate. It is important to highlight these facts so that we can properly assess the situation and place it within the broader context of mental health supports in our provinces and the nation as a whole.
Students on many campuses (although not all, I might add) often have more effective access to mental health supports than those who are not in university, where waitlists for care can often be longer. While the demand for care on campus continues to climb, so too does the demand for care for those not in postsecondary education. Many institutions have moved to walk-in models, increased the number of counsellors on staff to keep up with demand and added additional mental health resources across campus. Meanwhile, in Ontario as a whole, the average wait for psychiatric care was 45 days, according to research by Rachel Loebach and Sasha Ayoubzadeh published in the University of Western Ontario Medical Journal in 2017.
Young people in general, and not just those in college or university, are at higher risk of suicide. Indeed, the issue of suicide is not just confined to campus. Data from the Canadian Mental Health Association shows that suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people in Canada. However, young people have very uneven access to care, especially those in rural or remote areas. According to Children’s Mental Health Ontario, over 28,000 Ontario children and youth are waiting for mental health services, and for some the wait for services is up to two and a half years.
Shifting the burden
One of the ways universities along with their partners in student government have coped is to significantly invest in mental health services on campus. In effect, this helps to alleviate to some extent the burden on our already overburdened hospitals and community-based services. Think what this crisis might have looked like if universities or colleges had neglected to invest in services to support students on campus? Regardless, it was the right thing to do, especially if universities are admitting students from across the country or increasingly from outside Canada. Simply put, mental health services are critical on campus. However, I worry as a citizen about those who are not in school and are outside a system that cannot provide them or their families with accessible mental health support.
The media have portrayed this as a “crisis on campus,” but often without digging deeper into the facts about the investments that have been. It is incumbent on the media to look at this issue in the broader systems context. I think about the various efforts that many institutions across Canada have made, in good faith, to develop strong mental-health strategies. In fact, the issue is not one of crisis related to mental health on campus, but should be framed more broadly as a lack of mental health treatment and support in our society in general.
A broader societal issue
So where do we go from here? What are some of the priority items that need to examined? First, we need to acknowledge the reality that mental health and access to care is a broader societal issue. On a basic level this is about funding, but it is also a question of balancing priorities in the country. The enormous impact that poor mental health outcomes have on our workplaces, in our criminal justice system and, yes, in our schools is apparent, so we must collectively address the issue and not work in silos. This is a public health issue, not just a postsecondary education issue.
Universities and colleges in partnership with students should continue to invest in services and resources. As more data becomes available, we need to pursue evidenced-based strategies that have the greatest impact. Talk to students about barriers that prevent them from seeking care, and continually examine policies and procedures that can have an impact on the mental health and wellness of the students we serve. A healthy and vibrant campus includes strong mental health supports.
Finally, we need to talk to the media and those who are framing this issue as a crisis uniquely affecting colleges and universities. Yes, we need to do better, but we also need to advocate for adequate resources for our mental health partners in the community. The crisis will not be solved if we cannot have a balanced conversation, acknowledge the facts and work together to achieve better outcomes for all.
Joe Henry is the dean of students at King’s University College at Western University.