Providing effective mental health supports for university and college students, both on and off campus, is one of the most pressing issues on postsecondary campuses today.
With 75 per cent of mental health issues beginning by 24 years of age, postsecondary students are particularly vulnerable, and ensuring they have access to timely, effective and accessible services requires collective action.
Ontario’s universities, in partnership with colleges and student advocacy groups, recently brought together students, government and mental health-care organizations, at a Queen’s Park event, to hear lived experiences from students, and engage in solutions-focused discussions around a comprehensive approach to student mental health.
This event launched In It Together 2020: Foundations for Promoting Mental Wellness in Campus Communities – a joint report by the province’s postsecondary institutions and student advocacy groups. In It Together calls for a whole-of-community approach to mental health, meaning more collaboration between government and stakeholders to create better outcomes for students, and ultimately all Ontarians.
In It Together 2020 builds on In It Together 2017: Taking Action on Student Mental Health, and advocates for community-based and on campus mental health services, transitional programming for students as they enter postsecondary and timely access to care.
University and college students represent a unique population that includes youth under 25, as well as mature learners and adults who have experienced significant life events, such as job displacement. Their needs and challenges – from living between a campus community and a home community to facing the pressures of postsecondary education – require targeted services.
Before introducing the four student panelists, Catherine Dunne, President of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA), and Jecema Hewitt Vasil, President of the College Student Alliance (CSA), spoke to this need and highlighted the importance of supports that help students navigate the mental health-care system, as well as, raising awareness and fostering resiliency among kids before they reach postsecondary.
Panelist Katlyn, a third-year student at Laurentian University, echoed their comments.
“It’s something we need to be speaking about when kids are young so that they are able to recognize that they are not alone, that their feelings are normal and that they get the support they need,” said Katlyn, who serves as Vice-President, Education for the Students’ General Association at Laurentian and is a Steering Committee member with OUSA.
Megan, a fourth-year student at the University of Waterloo and Councillor and Director for the Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association, also highlighted the need for early intervention.
“I ask you to consider what you might not be seeing, even in our brightest and most involved students. I have experienced the systemic lack of knowledge and support that affects our young people and I hope that we can work together to make sure they aren’t left behind.”
Both Chloe, a mature student at Fleming College, and M.C., Cambrian College Student Council President, discussed the importance of an effective, easy-to-navigate system for students.
“[Mental health] is something that affects us all and needs to be supported and recognized so that people don’t fall through the cracks,” said Chloe, who serves as Board Director for both the college’s Student Administrative Council and CSA. “I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t have the support from CICMH [Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health], from Four County Crisis Centre, my counselling department at school and from my fellow board members.”
“It was my network, the people in my college who helped me connect with what I needed, and without them I would not have known how to access services,” said M.C.
These initiatives require a whole-of-community approach – one that brings together postsecondary, government, health-care providers and community agencies to ensure Ontarians are supported from K-12 to postsecondary and into adulthood.
Ross Romano, Minister of Colleges and Universities, after hearing from the panelists, reinforced the importance of bringing awareness to mental health and ensuring that the supports are not only present but that students know where to find them.
MPP Chris Glover, Critic for Colleges and Universities, and MPP Michael Schreiner, Leader of the Green Party, also underscored the commitment and collaborative approach needed for all parties to rally together for better mental health supports in our communities.
“We are proud to be working together on this whole-of-society issue, to advocate on behalf our students, ensuring that services are made available for students at all stages of their lives,” said David Lindsay, President and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities.
Key Facts about Student Mental Health
- 75% of mental health issues begin before the age of 24.
- Between 2011-12 and 2017-18, the total number of university students registering a mental health disability as their primary disability increased by 151%, while several universities are reporting an increase of more than 200%.
- This increase in demand has occurred even though the total number of students enrolled at Ontario’s universities only rose by 11% during this time.
- According to data from 10 Ontario universities, 90% of university health services had a top diagnostic code that was mental-health related in 2018-19.