Mental health is one of the most pressing issues on university campuses across Ontario, with more students experiencing depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts every year.
Being a student is a stressful balancing act. They’re under pressure to achieve high grades, join clubs, and decide what to do after graduation, choosing between a crowded job market and competitive graduate or professional degree programs. Many are living on their own for the first time and learning to manage their finances. Others are raising a family or looking after ongoing health concerns. University is expensive, too; almost forty percent of students work during the school year to make ends meet, often at the expense of their studies. In a recent OUSA survey, more than half of students said working while studying hurt their academic performance.
Any of these challenges on their own would be a lot; all of them together and it’s no wonder students struggle with their mental health. Last year, more than half of students in Ontario reported that, at some point, they had felt so depressed it was difficult to function. Almost seventy percent experienced overwhelming anxiety. Seventeen percent — almost one in five — seriously considered suicide. These alarming numbers, taken from the 2019 National College Health Assessment, have all increased significantly since 2016 when the survey was last conducted.
More students need help, but getting it isn’t always easy. Some aren’t comfortable reaching out; others might not know where to turn. Those able to find resources on campus are often met with long wait times, sometimes only to be told to wait months for an appointment with a community mental healthcare provider. And even when students do receive support or treatment right away, it’s not always as helpful as it could be. Counsellors, in some cases, aren’t trained to respond appropriately to students’ unique socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, and universities typically don’t have the expertise or the capacity to treat complex, long-term mental health issues that require ongoing appointments with trained psychologists or therapists.
That’s why OUSA has partnered with the College Student Alliance (CSA), the Council of Ontario Universities (COU), and Colleges Ontario (CO) to release In It Together 2020: Foundations for Promoting Mental Wellness in Campus Communities.
The report pushes for a ‘whole-of-community’ approach, where government, universities, students, and community healthcare providers all do their part to support student mental health. From a young age, students need to be given tools that help them manage stress and anxiety. They need somewhere to turn as they navigate the transitions from high school to university and into the workforce. They need peer-to-peer support services so they can connect with students who have gone through what they’re going through.
Last week, OUSA and its partners visited Queen’s Park to discuss these and other recommendations with Members of Provincial Parliament (MPPs), and to host a Mental Health on Campus event that gave students a chance to share their lived experiences. Their stories highlighted why it’s so important that we work quickly to improve the mental healthcare resources available to students across the province.
We’re on the right track. More students have opened up about their experiences, and the stigma around mental health is starting to fade. The next step is to make sure students have access to the support they need to address existing issues and prevent new ones from developing.
To learn more about OUSA’s recommendations for improving student mental health, read the In It Together report or take a look at OUSA’s policy on Student Health and Wellness.
If you or someone you know is struggling, there’s help available. Good2Talk provides post-secondary students with professional counselling services and referrals, either over the phone or via text. It’s free and available 24/7/365 — call 1-866-925-5454 toll-free or text GOOD2TALKON to 686868.
You can also check out Big White Wall, an online peer-to-peer support network that offers anonymous discussion boards, self-assessments, resources, and trained professionals to keep the community safe. It’s free and available 24/7/365.
There’s a lot going on with post-secondary education in the province, and students face a range of issues beyond the classroom. But students also have solutions – recommendations that will bring us closer to accessible, affordable, accountable, and high-quality education for all. That’s why each month we’re highlighting key issues and priorities for students in Ontario with this blog series based on OUSA’s priorities and policy library.
 2016 Ontario Post-Secondary Student Survey, Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA)