Students worry about rising toll of mental illness: Goar

Alliance of student leaders calls on Ottawa to address rise in mental illness on Canada’s campuses.

It’s time for campuses to address mental illness that affect students, but the change starts with us calling for our schools to take action.

– M


Long before statistics show a trend, people sense a change in their world. That is happening now at Canada’s colleges and universities.

Students see more of their friends than ever before seeking help for mental illness. Clinics report more demand for psychological services. Everyone on campus — undergrads, post-grads, researchers, teaching assistants, faculty and administrative staff — is touched directly or indirectly by the high cost of education, heavy student debt loads and the scarcity of jobs for graduates. For some, the anxiety is debilitating.

There is very little numerical evidence of a shift. Health Canada , the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health are all disseminating the same estimate they’ve always used: 10 to 20 per cent of Canadian youth are affected by mental illness. Statistics Canada shows elevated rates of depression and substance abuse in the 15 to 24 age bracket — but that has always been the case.

Despite the lack of hard data, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations is so sure the toll of mental illness is rising that it has just released a policy paper calling for a national plan to address adolescent mental illness.

The alliance, made up of 22 student associations representing 280,000 young people, is urging all three federal parties to incorporate its proposals into their 2015 election platforms. “By putting the CASA’s recommendations into action, the government will not only work toward improving the lives of the Canada’s youth and student population, but also the health of Canada’s future labour market,” says Jonathan Champagne , executive director of the alliance.

Student leaders are asking for four specific commitments:

  • They want Canada’s next government to provide more financial support for vulnerable students, including more grants and low-interest loans. They are also asking that graduates dealing with mental health problems be allowed extra time, at no penalty, to pay their loans.
  • They want improved mental health treatment on campuses. Too often post-secondary students are referred to psychologists or psychiatrists with long waiting lists or sent community treatment facilities already at capacity.
  • They want reliable mental health information so they don’t have to use anecdotes and perceptions to convince policy-makers that vulnerable students need help.
  • And they want an additional $4.5 million a year earmarked for the Mental Health Commission of Canada to ramp up its anti-stigma campaign in schools, colleges and universities.

Although the provinces control health-care and education, this is a pan-Canadian problem, the students argue. Ottawa is the only level of government capable of pulling together Canada’s disparate, gap-ridden mental health system. Moreover Statistics Canada, the Canada Student Loans Program and the Mental Health Commission of Canada fall under federal jurisdiction, they point out.

It took the research team about a year to compile as much information as it could, draft the policy paper and get everybody to sign on. The effort was led by one student from the University of Moncton, but endorsed by the entire board and staff.

Champagne admits they couldn’t establish a direct link between today’s bleak job market for graduates and the prevalence of mental illness on campus. All they could find were studies showing “stable, productive employment has a strong positive effect on overall wellness.”

They’re right — this isn’t good enough.

Their “road map for federal action” does not mesh well with the government’s agenda. The Conservatives are slashing Statistics Canada and scaling back health transfers to the provinces. They haven’t said whether the Mental Health Commission of Canada will exist after 2017 when its mandate expires. Their two top priorities are balancing the budget and cutting taxes.

The opposition parties are still formulating their policies. The Liberals are weighing aresolution , approved at their convention in February, to increase mental health spending to 8 to 10 per cent of the national health budget (it now stands at 5.5 per cent). The New Democrats have pledged to boost funding to mental health services, without providing specifics.

Students are the face of Canada’s jobless recovery. They followed the advice of educators and policy-makers: stayed in school, got good marks and acquired marketable skills. Now they are mired in debt as they hurtle toward a job market saturated with recent graduates. Employers aren’t hiring. Boomers aren’t retiring. The economy isn’t picking up. It all preys on their minds.

The surprise is that they’re asking for so little.