Ontario students with mental and emotional troubles wait an average of seven days to see a campus counselor – and some wait months, warns a new report that calls for more front-line help to tackle what has been hailed as a mental health crisis across Canada’s ivory tower.
The report by the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) calls on Queen’s Park to provide more targeted funding for psychologists and counselors, more student workshops on stress management, more campaigns to fight the stigma of mental illness and better training for professors to spot the signs of emotional distress.
“Students can be left waiting months before being seen by a practitioner, particularly for follow-up appointments, which speaks to a significant shortage … of adequate counselling services,” said the 18-page document Student Health; Bringing Healthy Change to Ontario’s Universities.
“For many students, the wait times will simply be too late to adequately address their issues.”
The study comes on the eve of a conference Thursday in Toronto on student mental health co-sponsored by the Council of Ontario Universities, Colleges Ontario, OUSA and the College Student Alliance.
The Canadian Association of College and University Student Services — the front-line workers who help students in distress — released a sweeping report last summer about mental health on campus, and has struck a working group to hammer out solutions.
While 41 per cent of students use mental health services by fourth year, those who are seriously troubled typically never reach out, noted the study. A staggering 80 per cent of those who committed suicide had never taken advantage of campus counseling, which suggests the need for more outreach and training in how to spot the signs of depression.
The student group praises the McGuinty government for pledging $257 million over three years to help children and youth — including post-secondary students — take advantage of help that is available.
But it noted 14 Ontario universities use student fees to run clinics and pay for counseling, and suggested government should at least share the cost.
“There is increasing evidence to suggest that mental wellness is closely linked with academic success and student retention, which are of tremendous benefit to the institutions and government,” said the report.
It also calls for more counselors trained to help students who are aboriginal, disabled, lesbian or gay, as well as counselors who belong to those groups.
Among other suggestions;
- Develop more robust help phone services for post-secondary students dealing with mental health issues and more seamless referrals to counselors;
- Develop a periodic survey of mental health services, including wait times and the dropout rate for students with mental illness;
- Evaluate the impact of administrative changes to reduce student stress, such as fall reading weeks or more flexible exam schedules;
- Amend the Ontario Student Assistance Program’s definition of ‘permanent disability’ to better reflect the episodic nature of mental illness and ensure that students suffering from temporary mental illness can still benefit from supports and services and student aid at a reduced course load;
- Develop more robust help for students making the transition from high school to post-secondary education
- Consider a mental health innovation fund that could support new approaches to mental health on campus and across the system. The fund could operate on a request for proposal basis, where institutions and student associations can submit project proposals for funds