This article is part of UMSU’s Manitoba Elections 2019 series, detailing the policy priorities that we have advocated for provincial parties to adopt as part of their platforms to ensure postsecondary education in the province remains affordable and accessible. Learn more here.
A joke among Canadians is that, on the surface, we resemble overly-polite Americans that shun the right to bear arms for the right to universal health care. One of the fundamental values of our society being the individual and collective importance of being able to seek treatment when we are sick or injured.
This right is so ingrained in our national psyche that when CBC ran its Greatest Canadian series in 2004, voters from coast-to-coast-to-coast selected former premier of Saskatchewan, Tommy Douglas – the founding father of Canadian medicare – as the greatest Canadian of all time. In the process, Douglas was chosen over Wayne Gretzky; Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone; Frederick Banting, who co-discovered insulin; and Lester B. Pearson, Canada’s 14th prime minister and the man credited with inventing the concept of peacekeeping at the United Nations.
Advances in health care and the public education messaging borne from it have played a key role in boosting life expectancy and molding Generation Z – defined as those born in 1995 or later – into the most sober, and in many ways safest, most risk-averse generation in history.
However, underneath, a mental health crisis is rapidly unfolding.
In 2016, the National College Health Assessment, a survey by the American College Health Association spanning 41 Canadian postsecondary institutions, including the University of Manitoba, collected some 44,000 responses from students detailing their physical and mental state. The findings painted a disturbing picture. One third of respondents said that their academic performance was being undermined by anxiety, while 20% reported the same due to depression – 13% of students reported that they had seriously considered suicide within the past 12 months. All three of these indicators had risen by 3-4% since a previous survey in 2013. It’s a safe bet that if the survey was conducted again now, those numbers may be even higher.
Campus counseling centres have seen this play out in real-time. Across the country they are struggling to cope as the spiking demand for services is outstripping available resources and is disproportionate to the growth rate of the general student population.
For students grappling with mental health issues, the root causes may sound familiar. The financial burden of studying has never been greater due to a retreat in government operating grants for institutions causing tuition to rise everywhere; just as wages in part-time and seasonal work upon which students rely are failing to keep pace with climbing rent and cost of living. While amounts vary by province, the average undergraduate in Canada finishes their degree with around $28,000 in debt and will take over a decade to pay it off. This amount is typically a dangerous mix of student loans, credit card debt and private loans.
One consequence has been the emergence of the ‘boomerang generation’ wherein graduates shackled with debt are moving back into their parent’s homes at rates unheard of. Faced with large debt loads and shaky job prospects after graduating – part-time or contract positions, or tenuous roles in unpaid internships or the gig economy – owning property, having children and starting a family is simply unfathomable for many young people. Knowing that the trade-off for studying is to have to put off meaningful life milestones can be devastating.
Evidence also indicates that the stress students are facing over a relative lack of pathways to a career and family post-graduation has been uniquely exacerbated by the advent of smartphones and social media. Research from the US shows that 71% of 18-24 year-olds check multiple social media accounts several times daily – often amounting to several hours’ worth of usage per day. These platforms are engineered to exploit normal human desires for acceptance, recognition and popularity to compel users to spend more and more time on them, increasing users’ screen time and social isolation in the real world. In doing so, users also consume a barrage of airbrushed content that leads to unrealistic life expectations, while stoking perfectionism and the fear of missing out. Heavy use also eats into regular sleep patterns, diminishes body positivity and equates self-worth with the number of likes and comments a person can rack up.
And yet, for all its evident harms, blaming social media alone for the mental health issues of a generation is somewhat off the mark. Research has also shown social media can have certain beneficial effects on user’s sense of identity, expression, access to information, and feelings of community-building and ability to organize for a cause. In short: simply abstaining from social media is not an option when you’ve grown up with it as an indispensable bit of technology and means of communication.
At first glance this all points to an acute crisis within the postsecondary student population. However, in reality, it is simply reflecting a wider trend within modern society. The Mental Health Commission of Canada estimates that by age 40, half of Canadians will have, or have had legitimate mental illness within their lifetimes. Of that mental illness, anxiety disorders remain the most prevalent and costly across the Western world, affecting up to a third of the population at any given time and draining precious public funds from the health care system.
A 2016 report by the Conference Board of Canada, a pro-business research group, calculates that lost productivity due to depression and anxiety alone costs the Canadian economy over $50 billion per year.
Whatever the various causes that underpin the mental health crisis playing out across society, the need for innovative solutions is stark. A 2016 report by the Conference Board of Canada, a pro-business research group, calculates that lost productivity due to depression and anxiety alone costs the Canadian economy over $50 billion per year. Reversing this trend gains urgency with every passing year, given how the federal government projects there will only be two workers for every retiree in Canada by 2035 compared with seven workers per retiree in the 1970s. A healthy, productive workforce will be vital in supporting Canada’s aging population. The key being that solutions for addressing mental health need to come in the form of institutionally-funded supports and resources rather than simply promoting solutions through the individualization of care.
As part of our election advocacy efforts, UMSU has been lobbying each of the province’s political parties to pledge to increase spending on mental health supports available to students province-wide. Our message, in chorus with numerous mental health advocates across Manitoba, appears to have taken root.
The NDP have pledged as part of their election platform to boost funding for mental health services, while creating a new ministry within government tasked with tackling mental health and addictions. The Manitoba Liberals have pledged to cut down on wait times for therapy by working with universities and colleges to increase the number of licensed psychologists in the province, which has less than half the national average of licensed psychologists per 100,000 residents. The Green Party has committed in its platform to increase mental health spending by 10% and focus on early intervention supports and integrating mental health services with primary health care providers. For their part, the incumbent Progressive Conservatives announced that if re-elected they would increase mental health services and trauma counselling for women that have suffered sexual abuse. At a forum on mental health and addictions on August 27, candidates from all four parties reached a rare consensus on the need for greater investment in treatment and intervention options for youth.
As for UMSU, in 2018-2019 we formed the first-ever mental health working group in the union’s 100-year history. The working group brought together students and stakeholders to devise new ways to address mental health on campus through student initiatives and within academic policy. We also teamed up with Mood Disorders Manitoba to provide peer support training to dozens of students on campus interested in becoming a mental health champion within their own social networks – a method that has proven highly effective on other campuses, given how mental health is an issue that some students find easier opening up to a peer about rather than a professional. This past winter UMSU also partnered with the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) on their #StudentsLetsAct campaign that saw students from 20 universities across Canada write 10,000 personal messages to the federal health minister as to why we need to see an increase in mental health funding.
We also secured an expansion to UMSU’s enhanced student health and dental plan, which will now cover $1,000 worth of visits to mental health professionals, and we will continue to run two Mental Health campaign weeks in 2019-2020, focused on promoting self-care and tearing down the stigma around speaking openly about mental health. To get involved with this year’s campaigns, see here.
An undervalued aspect of the ongoing dialogue over mental health is how experts and mental health professionals say that part of the current record highs in prevalence of mental health issues is at least partly due to decreased stigma over the topic, and how more people – especially students – are willing to come forward to ask for help. That’s encouraging. It also means students are well positioned to be at the forefront of continuing to push our government to help provide more and better options for treatment for everyone.
After all, we pride ourselves on a society where everyone has the right to seek help when they are unwell.