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Mental health struggles that affect 65 per cent of Ontario post-secondary students are straining counselling services

By KATHLEEN DRISCOLL
Staff Writer

Counselling services on college and university campuses across Ontario are struggling to help the hundreds of thousands of students coping with shocking levels of mental heath issues.

According to the Ontario University and College Health Association (OUCHA), which published the results of a survey of more than 25,000 Ontario college and university students this spring, 65 per cent of students reported experiencing overwhelming anxiety in the previous year (an increase from 57 per cent that was reported in the 2013 study), while 46 per cent reported feeling so depressed in the previous year it was difficult to function (up from 40 per cent in 2013).

Even more concerning, 13 per cent of participants had seriously considered suicide in the previous year (an increase from 10 per cent in 2013), while nine per cent disclosed they had previously attempted suicide (not previously researched). Of that group, 2.2 per cent reported attempting suicide in the last year (an increase from 1.5 per cent in 2013).

“You hear those stats… it’s hard to think of a more apt word than crisis,” says Meg Houghton, the president of OUCHA.

Houghton says the spike from previous OUCHA studies might in part be attributed to a greater willingness by students to disclose and discuss their mental health struggles. “There is a lot less stigma…. we’re seeing students are more likely to reach out for services.”

Houghton says that following those previous studies, college and university campuses across the province have put a lot of work into funding campaigns that destigmatize mental illness. These campaigns focused on redefining how mental illness is portrayed.

“Mental health is on a spectrum,” Houghton says. “We all have varying degrees of mental health.” This idea has been embraced by current college and university students. First years are beginning to contact counselling services at their post secondary institutions before they step foot on campus, being aware of the wait times for many public mental-health services, Houghton says.

The changing nature of student life has also contributed to the rise in mental-health problems. “Our students are living incredibly complex lives… even more than students (attending post-secondary institutions) 10 years before,” says Houghton.

The increase in student populations across the province is linked to the number of jobs requiring a post-secondary education. The result was an increase in students who may be the first in their families to ever attend a post-secondary institution that created new kinds of stress. Houghton says more students having access to higher education is great, but creates a greater demand on campus counselling services. “These are students that 10 years ago would not have even been attending post secondary,” she explains – a shift that comes with its own set of challenges on those particular students.

This makes sense when considering reports of the increased number of students having to live in shelters, such as the case of University of Toronto graduate Anh Cao, a Vietnamese international student who spent four months living in a shelter after his scholarship through the school ran out. The university came under fire for using Cao’s story of overcoming his circumstance to graduate with honours as a way to promote the school. Meanwhile, many schools are struggling to keep up with the high demand on their on campus food banks.

Houghton says there are more students who are dealing with forms of abuse or domestic violence that are seeking counselling services. Students who are marginalized in other ways (by race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.), are more likely to compound their mental-health problems.

A study published in the June issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, found that people of colour are less likely to get a response from mental health care professionals in comparison to white people. And research done by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) shows that LGBTQ+ people show higher rates of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive and phobic disorders, suicidality and self-harm. CMHA found trends suggesting people belonging to marginalized groups are more likely to have biases and stigmas of their group affect the mental health care they are able to access.

There is a third fact that has been gaining traction: the idea that the current generation of students aren’t as capable of coping with their mental health due to helicopter parenting tactics. “I don’t want to give that too much weight,” says Houghton, as she believes it undermines real issues and problems that many students are navigating.

With the increase of students feeling comfortable seeking help with their struggles with mental health, campus counselling services have seen an increase in wait times for students to see a counsellor. At Niagara College, the current wait time is four to six weeks for a 30-minute appointment. The wait times are similar or longer at other campuses across the province. And students seeking mental health care services from Niagara’s regional health services can expect to experience even longer wait times — in some cases up to six months.

Houghton says OUCHA is teaming up with campuses to build connections between campuses and regional services. The main focus at the moment is to increase early intervention, meaning helping with students’ mental-health struggles before they become dire.

Colleges and universities need more money to deal with the challenges. But if the results of this study shows anything, it’s the importance of schools prioritizing the resources they have for their students.