Universities, college speak out about mental illness

In All, Health, News by Linda Givetash

This piece was also featured in: Waterloo Region Record
Published July 31, 2012 | [ WEB ] | [ PDF ]


As more young people speak up about mental illness, post secondary institutions are racing to find new ways to meet the demands of their students’ diverse needs.

The University of Waterloo released a report last week that reviewed current services — health, counselling and support for disabilities — and made recommendations to improve ease of access and reach out to a wider range of students.

“There’s a lot of information coming forward in recent years about mental health among students and the opportunities for helping students be more successful by addressing mental health issues in new ways,” said Bud Walker, special advisor to the university’s vice-president academic, who spearheaded the review a year ago.

A prominent change that will be made at the university is broadening the role of the persons with disabilities department to offer support and accommodations to students with other lifestyle concerns, such as culture and gender.

Walker said he sees this as an opportunity to address problems before they escalate into more serious mental health concerns.

“If some of these things can be dealt with proactively you remove some of the potential of those students getting into the position where they feel there’s no real out for them,” he said.

Already, the university has contracted a director to oversee the current health-related services to better integrate and streamline the departments. An implementation team will also be formed by Sept. 1 to plan and execute changes from the report.

Short-term changes in administration and services should be implemented within the next year, said Chris Read, associate provost of students at the university.

Addressing broader issues such as the stigma surrounding mental illness will take much longer and require a change in culture and attitudes, he said.

Wilfrid Laurier University and Conestoga College have measures in place as well to adapt their services and programming to meet the needs of their students.

Mike Dinning, vice-president of student affairs at Conestoga, explained that the college takes ongoing feedback about its service from students and staff while also offering workshops and programming to educate their community about finding support when it’s needed.

“What we’re trying to do is make the community and the students aware of what are the identifiable issues and what are the resources available that they can access and I think that’s the key to this,” he said.

Working to develop a campus strategy to address mental health, Wilfrid Laurier University created the position of a mental health student support team leader to work with the students and find new ways to connect them with counselling support they need on and off campus.

“It was really important for us to have somebody who would be a conduit between students and the community and all of our internal departments here at Laurier,” said Leanne Holland Brown, dean of students.

By creating the new avenue of support, Holland Brown said the team leader will be a point of contact if students need to take a break from their studies or re-enter the school system and will notify the university if any improvements can be made with services currently offered.

Holland Brown said that Laurier’s full campus strategy to address mental illness proactively will be under development in the next two years and take into account students’ experiences during that time.

Weighing in on why more students are accessing mental health-related services to begin with, Read said it may be a combination of having more opportunities to ask for help and increasing pressures for students to succeed.

“We need to make sure that students learn what they need to learn within the classroom but to be the leaders of tomorrow, they need to have a balanced life and have that other part of the learning experience while they’re at university,” said Read.

Helping students cope with peer pressure, living on their own for the first time and ultimately leading healthy lifestyle while earning their education is a cultural shift that Read said could take years to become prevalent.

Until then, institutions are continuing to improve accessibility to services so that students who are struggling don’t slip through the cracks.

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Linda Givetash

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Linda Givetash is a Canadian-South African freelance journalist based in Vancouver, B.C. Her work has appeared in print, digital and broadcast media outlets around the globe.