Finding better ways of providing student mental health services: We’re all in this together

Many of us will, at some point, experience some mental health distress. For most of us, help is available from family and friends, and…

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Many of us will, at some point, experience some mental health distress. For most of us, help is available from family and friends, and that is sufficient. For those who are isolated, or for those who experience deeper distress, more specialized help is needed. For a small number of people, only the most highly trained mental health professionals with the best medical resources and social supports will make a difference. Every year, for a few of our students, even that is not enough.

Mental health crises experienced by individuals build up, usually slowly and over time. They start with small stressors and irritants that in themselves are not overwhelming. Given the right support, by the right person, at the right time, those stressors remain manageable for most people. When they start to become overwhelming because there are too many of them, or they are too severe to manage, that is when more help is needed.

The stakes of providing mental health support for our community are very high and we know that our current supports are imperfect.

Most people get the help they need, but when individuals don’t, the impact is very serious for them personally, and for the whole community. That’s why student mental health is a matter that we all need to tackle.

It all begins with front-line supports. Early access to someone trained in listening and helping is often all that is needed to prevent an overwhelming situation from escalating into a mental health crisis. Services with which we partner, like the SU’s Peer Support Centre and the 211 help line, provide this kind of support.

At the U of A, we have recently added ACCESS programs. Part of a nation-wide research and evaluation network that aims to change the system around youth mental health supports, ACCESS efforts include Access Open Minds and the Access Outreach Team. These teams give students someone to talk to right away. Although considered generalists, these are experts know when and how to connect students to specialist support resources when more help is needed.

Through ACCESS programming, we have increased the number of consultations available at U of A ‘s Clinical and Counseling Services by 15%. It is still not enough, and we are looking for ways to provide more.

It is very important that we keep increasing front-line, accessible generalist resources, so that students can have someone to talk to when they need to, with as few barriers and as little delay as possible. At the same time, we have to make sure that appropriate clinical and specialist mental health resources are there when needed as well. This is why we work hard to build and maintain networks of external partners in hospitals and clinics to which we can refer people whose needs exceed our capacity to help them.

That is also why we work hard to listen to and learn from students, whose activism on this issue has driven important change. We must continue to listen to student feedback, through the multiples channels we receive it: in person, through social media, through our partner student organizations, and from their representatives in the SU and GSA.

Instructors and administrators have a role to play here too, by being careful not to impose unnecessary stressors on students in an already stressful university environment, and by reaching out when we see that someone might need help.

All of the groups I’ve mentioned here have a direct stake in this issue. Financial support for student mental health currently comes from a mix of student fees, university funding, external grants, and donations.

All of us need to continue working together, and to continue prioritizing student mental health in our academic and budgeting decisions. We have to continue spreading knowledge about what resources are available both in the university and in the surrounding community.

When it comes to student mental health, we have work to do and we’re all in this together.

André Costopolous — Vice-Provost and Dean of Students

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André Costopoulos, PhD, joined the University of Alberta as Vice Provost and Dean of Students in July, 2016. Born and raised in Montreal, Costopoulos holds a BA (Hons) in anthropology from McGill, an MSc in anthropology from the Université de Montréal and a PhD in archeology from the University of Oulu, Finland. He began his career in 1999 as a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work at Eastern Connecticut State University. In 2001, he joined McGill as a research associate and sessional instructor in the Department of Anthropology and joined the faculty as an assistant professor in 2003. From 2012–2016, he served as McGill’s Dean of Students.