Western sees alignment with COU mental-health report

Recommendations outlined in a new report on student mental health, issued last week by the Council of Ontario Universities (COU), in partnership with student groups, aligns with Western’s developing strategic plan for student mental health, according to university officials.

COU recently partnered with Colleges Ontario, the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance and the College Student Alliance to develop a mental-health action plan focused on improving the mental health and well-being of postsecondary students across the province.

The report, In It Together: Taking Action on Student Mental Health, highlights key principles and recommendations to the provincial government, including the adoption of a community approach where government ministries, postsecondary institutions and health care and community organizations each play a specific role to strengthen postsecondary mental-health supports and fill service gaps.

“I welcome the report,” said John Doerksen, Vice-Provost (Academic Programs) at Western. “It is great to see students and institutions coming together to identify key needs and to put forward recommendations. I’m quite excited to see this. The emphasis on community partnerships is a critical one – we know the load is too great for institutions, in and of themselves, to be able to meet all of the demands. By having organizations in the community who can step in and can be close partners with us is a great benefit to our students.”

The report makes several recommendations, including updating Ontario’s Comprehensive Mental Health and Addictions Strategy to recognize postsecondary students as a distinct group; establishing partnerships between postsecondary institutions and local health-care and community agencies providing mental-health supports; free, provincially funded mental-health care for postsecondary students on and off campus; and implementing ‘resiliency’ programs in early grades to prepare students for postsecondary education. Each dovetails nicely with Western’s mental-health strategic plan, which will be finalized next term, Doerksen added.

Rick Ezekiel, Western’s Interim Senior Director (Student Experience), noted the report came out of a growing trend of increased reporting of metal-health challenges by university and college students across the province, which coincided with an increase in students reaching out for support.

“All of our services are being inundated with need – which is a great thing. It means we are doing better at reducing stigma; students are identifying and reaching out for help when they need it; we are increasing help-seeking behaviours. But at the postsecondary level, we are all struggling to meet that demand and the need students have,” he explained.

The joint report addresses this by collectively naming the issue of student mental health, a shared responsibility not only between postsecondary institutions, but government agencies and health-care providers. Provincial support is essential if we want to meet the growing needs of our students, Ezekiel explained.

“Identifying postsecondary students as a unique cohort is really looking at a risk level we see during that time – 75 per cent of mental health challenges have peak onset during the 17 to 24-year-old range,” he said.

“We are well-positioned as a sector to meet that age group where they are at. Many of them are in our institutions; we can create these access hubs where healthcare and services can reach students. But we can’t do that alone.”

The recommendation of free counseling services is just one example of how the province can help, he noted. Ontario residents and international students can access medical health care on campus at no charge through coverage offered by OHIP and UHIP. While the university has the ability to offer counseling services, they come at a cost to the institution and students. There is no funding for mental-health services and this prohibits the university from scaling up counseling supports.

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all service to meet the needs of every student. We need to continue to provide culturally relevant support for, example, Indigenous students through a space like Indigenous Services, a safe space they are able to access supports from a holistic model,” Ezekiel added.

Western offers varied mental-health supports and services for students, including peer support, which could benefit from more sustainable funding. The university also partners with community groups such as the Canadian Mental Health Association, offering crisis counseling during exam periods, showing a collective recognition and community effort at addressing student mental health, he explained. But these types of supports and partnerships need bolstering to address an ever-growing need.

“What this joint report offers is encouragement to continue on in that direction. I am looking forward to being able to finalize Western’s own mental-health strategic plan. What we are going to see is some of these priorities that have been identified in this joint report will also be reflected in our own strategy,” Doerksen said.

The fact the report and its recommendations have been student-driven must stay on the horizon, Ezekiel added.

“Students had a huge role in bringing this initiative forward – you see that in the recommendations. That’s the approach we’ve tried to take with our mental-health strategic plan, where we consulted with more than a thousand students. We need to keep student perspectives and voices at the forefront of these conversations and make sure what we are moving forward to support their mental health and wellness is in line with their lived experiences and needs.”