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Atlantic universities look to new model of dealing with student mental health

Atlantic universities are looking to change the model of dealing with student mental health.
In a conference on Oct. 30, university officials, counsellors, health-care professionals and students met at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax to discuss mental health on campuses.

“Mental health has become a real critical issue on university campuses right across the country, and certainly that holds true for our universities in the Atlantic,” said Peter Halpin, executive director of the Association of Atlantic Universities.
The conference discussed ways to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness and new models to help treat students. One of these new models is the Stay Connected Mental Health Project in Halifax, a project that recently expanded to include students from the city’s universities.

“It’s in its very early days,” said Halpin. “But that’s a program that our universities are viewing as a potential model for other universities for development in their home community.”
The project links the community’s mental health services, like those at local hospitals, to those of the universities. It also strategizes a way to equip university staff and students to identify signs of students in distress. This includes possible training certification for peer support workers.

“Between six to 10 per cent of students report that during the previous year that they had serious thoughts of suicide. About 45 per cent of those don’t tell anybody,” said Rice Fuller, of University of New Brunswick counselling services.

“Of those that do talk to somebody about it, about two-thirds of them will talk to a peer first. So that right there says ‘OK, if they’re talking to a peer first, we need to be educating peers about how to respond to somebody who is having thoughts of suicide.’ ”

Fuller said Halifax’s Stay Connected project would be a big help to students who have received help from another place before coming to university, or vice versa.

“[So if] you have somebody who is getting service at one age and that information would be quite useful to the people treating them at another age, they don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Fuller said.

“I think this is an excellent project in terms of trying to make that connection and trying to make that transition better.”

Halpin said partnership and collaboration is important when making conferences such as the one in October successful.

“This past conference we had was about sharing best practices among our universities. Everyone places a high value on that, because we can learn from each other,” he said.

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