Editor’s Note: The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) recently released a report on one of the major topics of concern in the postsecondary realm, the alarming mental health conditions of students, and the on-campus and community-based services which exist to treat them.
Here is the introduction and conclusion of that report. The full document can be accessed at http://www.casa-acae.com/breaking_down_barriers_mental_health_and_post_secondary_students
Mental health is a pressing concern for postsecondary students in Canada. The 2016 National College Health Association survey of Canadian postsecondary students demonstrates that a significant number of students are experiencing mental health problems and illnesses: 44.4% of surveyed students reported that at some point in the previous 12 months they felt “so depressed it was difficult to function”; 13% had seriously considered suicide; 2.1% had attempted suicide; and 18.4% reported being “diagnosed or treated by a professional” for anxiety. The growing prominence of mental health issues among postsecondary students is not limited to Canada – it has been noted by practitioners and researchers in the United Kingdom and Australia, and authors in the United States have called the increase in students with mental health issues a “rising tide”. It should come as no surprise, given these experiences on campus, that so many student advocacy organizations are calling for attention and action on student mental health. As more students gain access to higher education, and the mission of institutions encompasses more of Canada’s diverse population, supports must be made available to ensure that all students can succeed in academic environments that promote good mental health.
The shocking statistics on mental health in postsecondary education (PSE) described above align with expert understandings of age and mental health. As the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) explains, “The highest rate of mental health problems and illnesses is among young adults ages 20 to 29, a time when young people are generally beginning postsecondary education and careers.” The MHCC further notes that “research shows that up to 75 percent of mental health problems have an age of onset occurring in childhood, adolescence or young adulthood.” About half of postsecondary students with “mental health disabilities”, according to research in Ontario, will experience the onset of their condition over the course of their postsecondary education. For this reason, the MHCC has identified postsecondary institutions as an important setting for prevention and intervention, and advocates for increased support for people with mental health problems and illnesses to pursue education.
In 2014, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) published “A Roadmap to Federal Action on Student Mental Health”, a comprehensive look at the role of the federal government with respect to mental health in postsecondary education. This report highlighted a number of facts that demonstrate the importance of including mental health in discussions about postsecondary issues and best practices: reports of significant increases in students with severe psychological problems accessing student services, an increase in the number of students in Canada and the United States being prescribed psychiatric medication for pre-existing conditions (from 9% in 1994 to 24.4% in 2014), and the potentially detrimental effects of mental health problems and illnesses on educational achievement, employment outcomes and the formation of personal relationships.
The issue of mental health on campus is more important than ever. Recent years have witnessed an increase in discussions around the prevention of mental health problems and efforts to promote mental health, for example by counteracting stigma. While important goals, they alone do not meet the needs of all students. On-campus accessibility offices have been part of student support services for some time, but the sharp rise in students seeking accommodations, including those related to mental health, has left many campus services struggling with how to best support students facing these issues. The effects of mental health problems and illnesses can be overwhelming, and a lack of support structures can make or break the postsecondary experience for students who are struggling. This is why it is imperative that Canada’s federal and provincial governments examine how best to ensure that adequate supports are provided to these students.
This paper examines the barriers to postsecondary education for students confronting mental health problems or illnesses, as well as potential strategies for change focused on federal jurisdiction and the pan-Canadian level. Following a discussion of terminology and the responsibilities of the federal government regarding postsecondary education and mental health, this paper provides contextual information around mental health on Canadian campuses by offering an overview and background discussion of the subject. It also looks at how education can promote mental health for all Canadians. Following that is a section focused on the needs of students regarding mental health supports and some of the barriers currently in place that prevent students from having their needs met. Finally, this paper concludes with a series of recommendations for how the federal government can better address and improve mental health on campus.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Students with mental health problems and illnesses are increasingly pursuing opportunities in postsecondary education. Barriers to participation and success, however, have resulted in a range of persistent challenges related to the accessibility of appropriate services and stigma. Many students hesitate about accessing supports related to mental health, perhaps in part due to negative attitudes from peers and professors, who too often react with skepticism to requests for accommodation related to mental health. Financial aid options exist but are too limited, and campus mental health services are strained. It is deeply concerning that students with mental health problems and illnesses have some of the highest non-completion rates of all postsecondary students.
Mental health problems and illnesses are made more complex through interconnected issues of poverty, unemployment and workplace discrimination. To help students develop lifelong resilience and strength, mental health must be supported in a comprehensive fashion during postsecondary studies, when symptoms are most likely to manifest and when timely support can lead to lifelong benefits.
Several promising research and policy initiatives in Canada and abroad can inform CASA’s approach to reducing barriers and improving student mental health. In order to better address and promote mental health on campus, CASA recommend the following measures:
• The creation of a national working group, involving diverse representation from students and other postsecondary stakeholders in Canada, to establish best practices for promoting mental health and facilitating consistent and effective accommodations and accessibility practices across Canadian postsecondary institutions.
• Federal funding targeted at existing and new mental health initiatives, supports and accessibility tools on Canadian campuses.
• Active support by the federal government of campaigns at postsecondary institutions across the country aimed at decreasing stigma and increasing knowledge of mental health and the rights of students.
• A national body to collect data on mental health in postsecondary education. Responsibilities should include identifying topics needing further research, collecting and assessing new data, and assembling and analyzing the diverse data already amassed by stakeholders.
• The creation of a Canada Student Loans Program (CSLP) grant for students living with mental health problems and illnesses with financial need to help cover the cost of mental health assessments required to obtain academic accommodations.
• The CSLP work with stakeholders to ensure that its definition of permanent disabilities reflects and responds to the diverse situations of students, including the accommodation needs of students with mental health problems and illnesses.
• The CSLP develop improved program options for students with disabilities and students with mental health problems and illnesses, including improved loan repayment options, health-related leave options and expanded lifetime repayment limits.
• A commitment by the federal government to increasing mental health investments in accordance with the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s funding proposals outlined in its Canadian mental health strategy.