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canadian university report - mental health

There is a dramatic increase in students seeking help for mental-health issues.Getty Images

Audrey Carleton , a fourth-year student, takes Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) medications daily to help with concentration on school work.

So when she was off her medications due to a miscommunication with her psychiatrist at McGill University in Montreal, Ms. Carleton lost focus. She had two midterms the next day, and was not prepared for them.

Ms. Carleton went to the school's Counselling and Mental Health Service for help, hoping to see a psychiatrist by the end of the day to obtain prescriptions and an excusal note.

Without a clear intent to injure herself or others, Ms. Carleton's chances of getting a same-day appointment were low.

By late evening, she decided to visit the student-run peer support centre, where a student helped her draft an e-mail explaining the situation to both professors. Ms. Carleton heard back from one professor before the exam, and was able to get a deferral the next day.

"If I hadn't been able to talk to the peersupport centre, I think that would have ended up being a much bigger crisis than it was in the end," Ms. Carleton added.

Stories like hers reflect the growing strain on McGill's mental-health services, which has seen a 35-per-cent increase in students seeking help over the past five years. But this seems to be a common trend among other universities, as well.

A survey of 15 universities and colleges conducted by the Toronto Star and the Ryerson School of Journalism found that mental-health budgets have increased on average by 35 per cent, indicating a rapid increase in students seeking support.

It is hard to pinpoint a single reason for the dramatic increase in students seeking help. Some experts credit destigmatization campaigns, such as Bell Let's Talk, for creating a culture where mental health is no longer a taboo subject. Others have linked the use of social media with poorer mental well-being, especially when it causes predominantly young adult socialmedia users to experience feelings of low self-esteem or self-loathing.

What is clear is that the percentage of students who experience overwhelming anxiety and depression has gone up from three years ago, according to the most recent National College Health Assessment survey, a 2016 North American survey, which included responses from about 44,000 students from 41 Canadian postsecondary institutions. A fifth of Canadian postsecondary students are depressed and anxious or battling other mental health issues, up about 3 to 4 per cent from 2013, The Globe and Mail reported. Another troubling finding is the percentage of Canadian students who indicated seriously contemplating suicide – 13 per cent – which increased by about 3.5 per cent from 2013.

Administrators at higher-education institutions are well aware that mental health is a growing issue on campuses.

"Almost every jurisdiction in the country has put significant resources into ... mental-health services. Universities have certainly aimed to respond to the problem," says Glenda MacQueen, vice-dean of the medical school at the University of Calgary.

But determining whether universities have spent enough on mental-health services is a trickier question. Schools with a large proportion of students living on-campus require more resources than commuter campuses, because those students might not have access to their local psychiatrist or therapist. This also raises questions about the role of universities and the extent of mental-health care they should provide: Are universities responsible for providing care to students who are diagnosed with more severe illnesses and require long-term treatments?

Ultimately, it's a question of the university's priorities.

"We have athletic teams for everything, we have intramural competitions right up to national level, and we seem to all agree that that's something valid for universities to support. So it's up to the students, the administrators, the governors of the universities to decide how much investment do they want to make on mental health and well-being," Dr. MacQueen added.

With limited funding for university mental-health clinics, students have taken matters into their own hands by leading a variety of mental-health initiatives.

One such initiative is peer support centres, which are staffed by students and funded through student unions. Student volunteers generally undergo hours of training, and are equipped with active listening skills as well as offering nonjudgmental support.

"Having a peer to talk to can be a lot less intimidating than talking to someone who is a professional and maybe seen as an authority figure, or someone who has a different level of power than you do," says Danielle Sanford, the co-ordinator of UBC Speakeasy, and the co-chair of the Canadian Peer Support Network, a group in existence for two years.

UBC Speakeasy has about 43 volunteers, and normally has longer operating hours during the semester than the university-operated counselling services.

For some students, Speakeasy is seen as an alternative to the long wait times at counselling services.

"Students in the past have chosen to use Speakeasy because they are on a wait list for another service," says Ms. Sanford.

Students are not professionals and cannot replace the mental-health services offered by the university. But that does not mean students don't play an integral role in mental-health discussions.

"The first line of support for anyone is their peers; the first person that you talk to usually about mental-health issues or any kind of stresses or struggles that are going on are your friends or people that are in your classes or people that you are generally around. It's really important that we are all comfortable at supporting each other," says Ms. Sanford.

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