Doctor advocates for new mental standard for students

by | Nov 27, 2020 | Campus News, News

A Nova Scotia doctor is raising awareness for a new mental health standard for post-secondary campuses across the country as recent studies point to a desperate situation for students amid seismic shifts to their livelihoods.

Dr. Elizabeth Cawley recently led the effort to produce the new National Standard for the Mental Health and Well-Being of Postsecondary Students, an effort to standardize a more holistic, higher level of care across the country.

Cawley said colleges and universities traditionally have focused on counselling centres to deal with mental health on campus, but the standard goes further.

“Mental health and well being of students is really something for the entire campus community to focus on, whether that’s faculty or staff or learning in the classroom,” she said.

The report was followed by a survey from the Ontario Confederation of University Facility Associations that indicated more than 60 per cent of students felt moving to online learning had a negative impact on their education.

The study of 502 Canadian university students and 2,208 faculty and librarians between Oct. 16 and Nov. 6 showed 55 per cent said they are concerned about their mental health due to the same changes.

Cawley said provincial governments can leverage parts of their budgets to back efforts to make mental healthcare more equitable.

“Everybody has different resources and different abilities to offer various mental health services on campus but if government can intervene, or develop programming to make it more equitable, I think that that would make a really big difference,” she said.

Post-secondary opposition critic Chris Glover made it clear the Ontario New Democrats support a national mental health strategy, calling it “absolutely essential,” but emphasized the need to also tackle the financial burden that comes with being a student.

“One of the factors that’s feeding the mental health crisis on campus is the incredible stress level that students face because of the cost of education,” Glover said. “If we want to improve student mental health, the first step would be to relieve the financial pressure on students.”

The OCUFA’s report said 53 per cent of students surveyed were concerned about their financial situation because of COVID-19.

Humber News reached out to the provincial government’s post-secondary education minister Ross Romano for an interview but was referred to the ministry, which did not reply.

Cawley described the standard as an important first step in helping campus administrations tackle mental health care through policies, programs, and processes.

She said a big part of the plan is the inclusion of the Stepped Care 2.0 care model, a format of “multiple different levels of intensities of support.”

“You need to have these various levels of support so that people can find what’s right for them it really empowers somebody to pick the approach or the modality that they want to engage with,” Cawley said.

As the ongoing coronavirus pandemic brought an end to social activities and the engagement normally associated with school, the research found the impact on students was particularly negative.

A study published in Canadian Psychology in September found participants who had no history of mental health concerns reported greater psychological distress during the lockdowns with increased isolation leading to higher levels of depression.

The study surveyed 800 University of Toronto students in May 2019 and May 2020 to give an indication of the impact of the pandemic restrictions, one of the report’s authors told the Canadian Press.

Denis Shwaloff, a second-year Humber student, said he misses being around people and that it is taking a toll on his mental health.

“After a few months of quarantine I’ve started to feel even worse, at times just lying in bed for days and eating junk food cause I didn’t feel like anything,” Shwaloff said.

But support from the province, he said, could help.

“I’ve read that during this pandemic suicide rates have skyrocketed, so a greater push for more mental health support and openness to mental health issues is quite needed,” Shwaloff said. “I feel like people don’t realize that mental health is as important as physical health.”