The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) has published a paper regarding the importance of mental health on university campuses and the current impact mental health has on students.
The paper, published on Jan 9, is titled ‘Breaking Down Barriers: Mental Health and Canadian Post-Secondary Students.’
Prepared by Rosanne Waters, a policy and research analyst for CASA, and Alyssa Max, a 2016 policy and research intern, the 22-page document goes over a number of topics such as wait times, financial accessibility, academic accommodations and the role of the federal government.
The paper’s primary purpose is to ensure the promotion and facilitation of good mental health in post-secondary education environments. It also seeks to offer recommendations to the federal government for this purpose.
Michael McDonald, the executive director of CASA, says that they, along with many students and student governments across the country, have identified the role that mental health plays in a student’s academic standing. McDonald says that sound mental health is integral for students flourish both in and out of the classroom.
“This is specifically really important in a post-secondary education environment, where you’re really talking about a time and period where many students are first encountering challenges that they may experience with their mental health,” says McDonald.
Wait times are one of the most immediate issues a student can face with regard to mental health services. The document noted that wait times for counselling services at post-secondary institutions can vary, with some being up to 2-3 months.
UNB Counselling Services also identified this problem. Approximately one year ago, they underwent a change that ensured wait times—especially for first-time visits—would not be an issue. While students may have had to wait a few weeks for their first visit with a counsellor before, counsellors are now able to see students the day they apply—or the day after.
The director of Counselling Services at UNB, Rice Fuller, says that it’s very important to quickly take in students for counselling—especially when it can take a lot to ask for help.
“We were booking people who were coming in for their first appointment probably four weeks into the future and it just seemed completely wrong,” says Fuller.
“My feeling is that we ought to be making every effort that we can to see people right when they’re coming in—so either that day ideally or the next day.”
Since making adjustments so that counsellors were seeing as many people per day as they could, and utilizing the slots of people who cancelled or didn’t arrive for their appointment, the number of individual students seen has increased by 33 per cent. This statistic is based on the number of students seen in the fall 2017 semester versus the fall 2016 semester.
“The downside tends to be [it’s] maybe longer between appointments, or longer to get their second appointment—but our feeling is that you need to get to people as soon as possible when they’re asking for help,” says Fuller.
However, it’s not just wait times that provide obstacles to students trying to seek help. According to the CASA document, financial accessibility can sometimes present a barrier for students seeking treatment for a mental illness.
An example of one such barrier is found within the Canadian Student Loan Program (CSLP), which offers numerous provisions for students with permanent disabilities, but according to CASA, one must have documentation to prove “permanence.”
Not only can obtaining this documentation be a costly and lengthy process—but in other cases, labels such as “permanence” can cause many mental health diagnoses to not be covered at all.
According to Fuller, the very use of the word “permanence” is an approach that should be reconsidered.
“I don’t think it’s helpful, and, you know, it implies that we can see into the future—which we really can’t,” says Fuller.
For the most part, Fuller expressed agreement with the paper’s content, but says he would have liked to see more about the work being done in counselling centres and student services across the country, as well as further mention of the work done by the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services and the Canadian Mental Health Association.
CASA’s recommendations include the creation of a grant for students with financial need to help cover the documentation and assessments needed to acquire mental health accommodations—which some universities require. Flexibility in the repayment plan for loan borrowers with mental health issues or illnesses is another recommendation, along with a reassessing of the use of “permanent disability” and introducing the term “prolonged disability,” thereby including more students.
McDonald says that students requesting extended deadlines or different working environments can sometimes be perceived as being lazy or trying to avoid doing work, but he says these should be identified as signs of students who need assistance.
“We think that, overall, broad-based stigma reduction work is very important,” says McDonald. “But also making sure that campuses have proper policies to protect students is also key,.”
Photo Credit: Maria Araujo