Making the Case for Campus Case Managers: Optimizing Student Mental Healthcare Access

Campaigns to promote mental health and wellness are ubiquitous on university campuses in today’s day and age. Mental health of post-secondary students is an incredibly important issue with no shortage of advocates. However, these conversations stem around “raising awareness,” “smashing the stigma,” or “increasing resources (through more funding)” through services, without discussing accessibility issues to mental healthcare that, if addressed, could simultaneously address all three of these goals.

The stress and academic rigour that accompanies obtaining post-secondary education inevitably takes a toll on every student’s mental health, whether they have a pre-existing mental illness or not. In these difficult times, accessing mental healthcare can feel like an impossible task. Even when the services are there, even when they are well advertised and equipped, students have trouble getting through the right door. Services for individuals on the various spectrums of mental health and wellness are vastly different, and it is difficult to know what exactly is needed when one is experiencing difficulties and stress.

Promoting the services available through on-and-off campus resources is not enough. Nearly all of these services require self-advocacy—the ability to continuously call, make appointments, show up, and regularly access these resources. It takes a lot of courage to ask for help. It takes even more courage to continue to seek that help. Students suffering from mental health issues are particularly likely (due to the nature of mental health issues) to have trouble self-advocating. The process can be intimidating, especially accessing the system and being bounced around from service to service until the “right one” is found.

Family Service Thames Valley (London, ON) is a service that provides counselling, advocacy, and system navigation to people dealing with stressful life situations. One service, in particular, is the Adult Protective Service Worker (APSW), which supports and empowers adults with disabilities. This comprehensive service provides advocacy on behalf of the adults, case management to help them achieve recovery and stability goals, and helps them navigate community resources through research and referral. Students at Western University who have accessed the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Crisis Centre due to mental health issues have been paired with an APSW, and have spoken highly of their experiences with this service, especially in accessing community courses.

Case Managers are not a new concept in mental health care; they also exist to help reintegrate those suffering from addiction from hospital care into the community. Case Managers on university campuses, who understand university services, university policies and procedures, academic accommodations, and student needs, specifically, would help optimize the access of mental healthcare both on campus and in the surrounding community.

Ideally, a Campus Case Manager would work one-on-one with students for a short period of time—community case management services range anywhere from 3 weeks to 6 months. These individuals would help with goal setting, advocacy through academic counselling and, most importantly, follow up to ensure the mental healthcare is being accessed regularly and consistently. Campus Case Managers would discuss the unique situation with the student, and provide information about resources that would best address that situation. This would greatly optimize mental healthcare access. It is similar to a triage for mental health services but differs in that it is one-on-one and includes follow up measures.

It would also be beneficial for students to understand that they need not be mentally ill nor in crisis to speak to a case manager briefly. The nature of the one-on-one interactions would ensure that those who are capable of being more independent after one or two meetings would do so, and those who require more support would continue to receive it. This personalization of mental healthcare, and the assurance that the first step would be to only speak to one person, would greatly lower the pressure on students struggling with taking that first step to help.

In this model, students would only access the resources that they truly need. This would reduce wait times, reduce the number of resources that students access before finding the right one, and increase efficiency in accessing campus and community resources. Case Managers have been used by the CMHA, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, and various other mental healthcare providers. It’s time that universities look into providing case management services to optimize mental healthcare access at their universities and provide the targeted support that their students need.

Vanshika Dhawan is the University Students’ Council Public Arts Coordinator at the University of Western Ontario.