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Mental Illness Awareness Week runs from Oct. 1-7.

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As the importance of addressing psychological health at work gains traction – through efforts like the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (the Standard) – it follows that protecting and promoting the mental wellness of tomorrow’s work force is equally crucial.

Reorienting the culture of post-secondary institutions to better equip students to thrive, both academically and personally, is integral to growing a resilient and productive work force. In fact, many of the young people studying at colleges and universities across the country are already actively engaged in work-study programs – making them drivers of the Canadian economy. Eighty per cent of employers say that co-op and internship students are a source of new talent and potential future employees. Further, more than half of today’s undergrads benefit from on-the-job learning as part of their overarching education.

A Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario study found that resilience, as with other transferable skills such as initiative and teamwork, can be taught, and proposed ways to assess resilience as an outcome of post-secondary education. Universities and colleges, then, are uniquely placed to ensure that the skills students learn go beyond didactic information and include life skills, like building resiliency.

Furthermore, by extending accommodation to students living with a mental health problem, universities and colleges will ensure they set out to join the work force with confidence in their capacity to succeed.

Awareness

Students entering postsecondary education often experience a tidal wave of new experiences. For many, alcohol and substance use, the exploration of sexuality and the reality of independence – both financial and emotional – underpin the stress of a rigorous academic schedule. Mature learners face unique challenges too. Many hold down demanding jobs and are raising families. Many are recent immigrants or international students adapting to a new language and culture. And most are making significant financial and other sacrifices to advance their education.

Resiliency is the key to unlocking the potential for students to thrive during times of upheaval. Putting the mental health and wellness of students at the heart of these institutions is both a compassionate and pragmatic approach. Recent surveys show that 50 per cent of students use campus mental health services – of which 10 per cent are seen in urgent or crisis situations.

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The growth in demand and the complexity of mental health needs can create challenges for post-secondary institutions. From first-year students struggling with the transition to adulthood, to senior students grappling with the anxiety around finding employment, there is an undeniable need for best practices around mental health on campus.

Further complicating the issue, emerging adults age out of the child and youth system when they reach the age of majority because services are based on chronological age, rather than need.

Accountability

Given these realities, post-secondary institutions would benefit from a nationally established, systematic framework to protect and promote the psychological safety of students. Enter the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s (MHCC) championship of the first voluntary standard for psychological health and safety for post-secondary students.

The post-secondary standard will establish the key tenets of an easy-to-implement framework to empower institutions to better safeguard the mental wellness of students. It will also include benchmarks to measure success in meeting the standard established.

Action

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To be released in 2020 and funded by Bell Let’s Talk, The Rossy Family Foundation, RBC Foundation and Health Canada, the standard will involve the input of students, staff, faculty, unions, families and caregivers to shape a framework that reflects policies, programs and services based on the needs of this critical cohort. Consultations for the new standard got underway this fall and are ongoing.

This endeavour isn’t starting from scratch. It is founded on past work such as the post-secondary student mental health guide co-developed by the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services and the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations policy paper, Breaking Down Barriers, and the Okanagan Charter, a health promotion framework used internationally by universities and colleges.

As employers look to create a strong and sustainable work force, ensuring a seamless transition for newly minted graduates could involve building on the mental health awareness gaining traction on campuses. By leveraging frameworks like The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, employers can help bridge the transition for graduates fresh out of college or university.

Similarly, programs that support the goals of the Standard, like The Working Mind, which provides employees with a common language to communicate about mental health and wellness and aims to build resiliency, has a post-secondary school counterpart in the form of The Inquiring Mind. Currently being piloted at several post-secondary institutions, The Inquiring Mind was developed hand-in-glove with students and researchers to ensure its resonance. Another pilot, underway at Dalhousie University, is an applied research study measuring the impact of Q-Life, a student resiliency program. Led by Bill Howatt and Darren Steeves, in partnership with Dalhousie University faculty, the study will evaluate Q-Life’s impact on student success.

Louise Bradley is President and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto.

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You can find other stories likes these at tgam.ca/workplaceaward

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