A Year for Mental Health Transformation at Universities

With my 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. studying routine during midterms, I was perplexed as to why I was getting such low marks even though I was putting the time and (ridiculous amount of) effort into preparing myself for them. I couldn’t figure out what I was missing. Did I not study enough? You would think that 17 hours per day leading up to the exam would put me in a good position. Did I not understand the material? With the hours of tutoring and preparation, I felt particularly confident. How about the panic attacks, anxiety, and persistent stress that took over my mind throughout the exam season? Maybe that did it. After pondering why every single test and assignment fell short of my expectations, and what I felt were marks I did not deserve to get, I decided to ask for help.

And help I did not receive. I was fortunate to get an appointment with the university’s occupational therapist within a week (a rarity for most students) after explaining my situation. She was kind, warm, and friendly. I was ashamed of asking for academic accommodations, but at the same time, I was eager to obtain the support I needed. After going into depth about my situation and asking about accommodations, the occupational therapist merely recommended that I do deep breathing exercises (which usually leads to me hyperventilating) during exams, and “day plan” (which, if you know me, is one my side-hobbies). Super helpful. In order to be accommodated, I would have had to see an “actual” doctor. Wasn’t that who I was supposed to be seeing? Why do we not have doctors on campus? Why do students have to go through this absurdly obnoxious process to actually have their problems deemed legitimate?

I was perplexed and disappointed about my experience with the mental health services on campus. I was left to navigate the rest of my semester and finals on my own.

By the end of finals, I was still frustrated about my situation and I was curious about if other students felt the same way. I decided to explore the quality of mental health services at various universities across Canada by conducting an online survey. To my immense surprise, I received 176 responses from students across the nation in all faculties and disciplines. The respondents included students from Queen’s, McMaster, Laurier, Laurentian, Guelph, Brock, Acadia, University of Toronto, Trent, Carleton, Dalhousie, University of Winnipeg, McGill, York, University of Ottawa, Ryerson, and many more.

My survey proved that this clearly wasn’t just a "me" issue. I began to see that there was a large gap between the needs of students and the services available to them. Universities, colleges, and schools of any sort want their students to be successful. That is their ultimate end goal (right?). But how can a student master their education when their mind is clouded by the darkness that their mental health issues possess? The gap will only widen as schools continue to disregard the needs of their students.

I asked students three broad questions: “How was your experience using your university’s mental health services?” (provided they had previously used them); “What improvements do you believe your university needs to make in order to fully optimize their mental health services?”; and “As a university student, what does mental health mean to you?”

The answers varied, but held three reoccurring themes: a) students are disappointed by their university’s mental health services, b) there are many improvements to be made and c) mental health means everything.

To sum it up, students claimed that their experiences were impersonal and of extremely poor quality (provided that they were able to get an appointment in the first place). Even further, one student pointed out that they were embarrassed that their school, which acquires millions of dollars a year, could have such poor mental health services.

Students wrote paragraphs upon paragraphs about how their respective universities could improve. The first (and most common) recommendation I read was “More funds for resources!” as students explained that they were waiting weeks if not months to get an appointment. Clearly, we have the funds, but where are those funds going? Building renovations? It’s time to think about funding allocations in a more strategic way so that students' problems are no longer being put on a waitlist.

As well, universities need to better publicize their services. Over and over and over again I read “I’m not sure what services are available.” It’s pretty easy to hang up a few posters around campus, or even better, throw a post on Instagram every now and then advertising and pushing these resources to students.

Looking specifically at the services offered, students complained about their quality. Students (including myself) expressed that there need to be actual doctors and psychologists on campus who can provide accommodations and other support systems to help students thrive. As well, most students believe that the services need to be more responsive. Appointments shouldn’t just be crisis-based. It takes a lot of courage to ask for help, regardless of the problems students are facing. Problems are problems and should not be put on a scale. Last, a student pointed out that these services should be “proactive rather than reactive,” meaning that they should seek out long-term solutions rather than tackling the short-term specific issue(s). Most of the time, there is a build-up of multiple factors that even students themselves may not recognize. Multiple appointments should be encouraged and counsellors should not give generalized suggestions to every student. Everyone has unique ways of tackling their problems and counsellors should aim to target students’ specific individual needs.

What I found even more disappointing was that some students felt they were not taken seriously and were offered little empathy and support - not just from the counsellors, but also professors and other faculty members. A distressed mind should be taken just as seriously as a broken wrist.

The main question you, as the university, are probably asking, is “Why is this student stating all these perspectives of our students?” The answer: because mental health means everything. It spills over into every facet of our days and lives as students, and ultimately, it keeps you in business.

I, as one of the several millions of students in Canada, propose a new year’s resolution: invest more into your mental health services, and even further, understand why you’re investing.

As the university, you may be thinking, why should we invest so much of our wealth into something so intangible and difficult to measure? From an economic perspective, think of this as a return on your investment. Tangibly, you will more than likely obtain greater profits, and intangibly, you will yield greater retention rates, which will demonstrate quality and precision in your education (AKA more profit).

I’m not just pulling this idea out of thin air. Studies upon studies have shown a link between academic success and retention rates, and mental health. For instance, a study conducted by Eisenberg, et al. found that mental health issues such as depression and anxiety are significant predictors of lower GPAs, and that students who suffer from them have a higher probability of dropping out. If quality of education tends to be reflected by high retention and academic success, and the state of mental health resources doesn't improve, then you’re more than likely going to say goodbye to your precious dollars.

...but that’s just from a profit perspective, and hopefully that’s not the main driver and incentive behind university decisions and processes. I would hope that I attend a university that prioritizes students above all profits and financial incentives, as any student would.

One of the most impactful comments I read was, “even though I struggle, I can get better.” Not every student has yet developed this sort of resilience, which I think is the number one trait to enable us to navigate our university experience, but even more so, life. Universities have the opportunity to leverage their mental health services so that we can obtain the support we need to thrive as students.

Together, as universities and students, let’s make 2019 a game changer.