Financial Instability: The Student Health Barrier That Must Be Addressed

 The everyday stress and anxiety that many university students face extends beyond the worry of test grades and course examinations. These feelings and emotions can impact every aspect of a student’s life, making it difficult for them to make friends, study effectively, or eat healthy. There is a domino effect here, where the stress from one issue affects other areas of a student’s daily life. Financial worries, in particular, can be the greatest contributing factor to the everyday stresses that students face. Students who come from low-income families often experience this to the greatest extent, since often, low income is associated with food insecurity and lack of housing.

I had the chance to speak with Dr. Gary Bloch, a family physician in Toronto and an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto. In his practice, he has spent some time focusing on how the financial issues that his patients face may contribute to their daily health adversities. Dr. Bloch has a team of income security specialists and health justice specialists. Income security specialists help patients navigate the income security system to find benefits they qualify for, whereas health justice specialists  support individuals with legal issues related to income security. This process, which he calls ‘prescribing income’, helps patients who are struggling financially receive extra government funding and support. This extra income helps his patients live a life that is in their own hands. It allows them to eat healthier foods, pay rent, or pay for their children’s schooling supplies. The importance of ‘prescribing income’ to low-income individuals cannot be understated. With low-income being one of the most important social determinants of health, Dr. Bloch’s change in how his clinic is run can have a long-lasting impact on the lives of his patients.

        This same strategy of ‘prescribing income’ can be adapted to university campuses across Ontario to ensure that students who are having trouble managing their mental or physical health due to their low income can receive the support they need. It is difficult for students to perform well in their academic studies and stay healthy when they’re facing a severe social situation such as financial insecurity. There needs to be easy access to legal support on campus that students can be sent to from the campus medical office when appropriate. This legal support team could help students to fill out paperwork or apply for extra government funding to meet their needs. Dr. Bloch also insisted that it is vital for on-campus physicians to ask their students about social support systems and housing troubles. This can be a valuable method of finding out why students may be suffering from stress or anxiety. The student mental health crisis goes far beyond the pressures of academic performance. The student support system at universities in Ontario needs to shift in order to better support individuals who are facing social inequities. This will provide all students with the same opportunities, ultimately leading to greater academic success and further career advancements.

        ‘Prescribing income’ can be a significant solution to the student mental health crisis, and it’s become increasingly important to support students facing social adversities. Student health consists of a highly complex social system in which each student may be impacted by different social factors. We need to take a holistic approach to recognizing these social pressures and supporting students in their academic journeys.