U of M Budget 2020/2021: More Support for Students’ Mental Health

This article is part two of UMSU’s U of M Budget 2020/2021 series, detailing the recommendations we have submitted to the University of Manitoba to include in its budget for the upcoming fiscal year. You can read part one, on expanding sexual violence education and prevention, here.

 

While other post-secondary institutions in Canada have increased the attention and resources given to supporting their students’ mental health, the University of Manitoba’s pledges to do the same have by most measures not materialized. Photo: Kevin Simmons/Flickr

RECOMMENDATION The University of Manitoba provide an increase of $300,000 in annual funding to the Student Counselling Centre (SCC) to help align it with recognized benchmark ratios of counsellors to students, as set by the International Accreditation of Counseling Services, and improve front-line capacity so more students can reliably access vital mental health support services on campus.

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In the spring of 2019 the latest version of the National College Health Assessment (NCHA) was released. This survey, conducted every three years by the American College Health Association, collected responses from some 55,000 students at dozens of Canadian post-secondary institutions (including the University of Manitoba) on their physical and mental well-being.

The findings paint an unsettling picture (see graph).

The Public Health Agency of Canada points to how three quarters of mental illness emerges before the age of 25, particularly between the ages of 15-24. This makes it especially important that support services are easily available at post-secondary institutions, given how many students may be grappling with mental health issues for the first time while they are studying toward their degree.

Reflecting the findings of the NCHA, counselling centres on campuses across the country have sounded the alarm over how the growing demand for mental health services is outpacing the growth of the general student population.

No matter what province, territory or region, the root causes will 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.

The current mental health crisis among post-secondary students across Canada – and in fact, globally – is not an anomaly, and is not going away any time soon.

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 debt load is typically a dangerous mix of student loans, credit card debt and private loans.

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.

Without having adequate access to mental health services, students may have their studies derailed because of lost ability to focus, or because tuition is no longer affordable as a result of having to spend hundreds of dollars out-of-pocket to seek treatment elsewhere.

The key here is that solutions for addressing mental health need to come in the form of institutionally-funded supports and resources, rather than taking an individualized approach to treatment through placing emphasis on consumer-based approaches to self-care.

 

Many mental health issues for post-secondary students stem from record debt levels required to finance their studies, combined with uncertain job and career prospects post-graduation and constant exposure to unrealistic life expectations due to social media. Image: The People Speak!/Flickr

Intervention at the post-secondary level is crucial in order to give individuals the tools and coping strategies to deal with mental health issues that may also arise later in life; it should be considered as part of the overall mission of a university – to develop thoughtful, productive, self-aware citizens.

Universities across Canada have begun to recognize this. The University of Toronto boosted its spending on wellness counsellors by $1.3 million in 2017-2018; the school also spent $1.5 million on installing accessibility advisors (coordinators) within its faculty programs to help students looking for course accommodations due to mental health concerns. Likewise, from Fall 2017 to Fall 2018, the University of Saskatchewan was able to achieve a 65-70% increase in delivery of counselling appointments for students.

The University of Waterloo has 70 professionals on staff to assist students with mental health concerns, including counsellors, psychiatrists, mental health nurses and intake workers. Ryerson University, the current home of our incoming university president, has 18 staff counsellors alone. Queen’s University has one counsellor or psychologist for every 1,225 students and one mental health provider (psychiatrist) for every 950 students.

The University of British Columbia committed $2.67 million to counselling services in its 2017-2018 budget. That same year the school saw a 7% drop in overall sessions as some students no longer needed follow-up sessions due to receiving timely and adequate treatment.

In comparison to its peers on the national stage, the University of Manitoba is falling behind in terms of providing adequate mental health supports.

In the University of Manitoba’s 2014 mental health strategy, Success Through Wellness, one of the six key goals the university pledged to achieve is the creation of a ‘supportive community,’ which is to be done through: “[Increasing] the accessibility, availability, integration and effectiveness of mental health services available to faculty, staff and students.”

By some measures, this pledge has not seen meaningful action.

 

Chronic underfunding of the Student Counselling Centre over the past decade has in part resulted in the current situation where, on Fort Garry campus, there is only one counsellor for roughly every 3,000 students. Photo: UMSU

For evidence one only needs to look at the withering level of financial support given to the university’s Student Counselling Centre (SCC), which is the main contact point for students looking for help with their mental health. The centre provides a variety of services for students, and all students are offered some form of support when they arrive at the centre.

This comes via notification of upcoming mental health workshops, emergency triage when required, being put in touch with support groups (including volunteer peer counsellors), or referral to Empower Me, a mental health support service provided by qualified counsellors via UMSU’s extended health benefits provider that supplies coverage for all undergraduates.

According to the SCC’s director, David Ness, the centre’s counselling service has not had a baseline funding increase to counselling staff for at least 10-12 years. In real terms, the SCC has less money to employ counsellors now than it did a decade ago.

Despite all of this, the SCC has worked admirably to improve its intake process this past year, resulting in a 55% year-on-year increase from September 2018 to February 2019 versus September 2019 to February 2020.

However, due to a lack of capacity given the erosion in funding in the face of overwhelming demand, students that don’t have the time to go through the first-come, first-serve intake process – which can often mean missing a class, adding to the stress and anxiety that fuels the majority of mental health issues among students – are being turned away from the chance to access counselling. Although, students who present signs and symptoms of high distress are always offered emergency triage services, many students in need continue to face lengthy wait times.

Given the ever-growing recognition of the negative impact that mental health has on student productivity and successful education outcomes, combined with the lack of financial support given to the SCC over the past decade, we ask that the university commit an additional $300,000 to the SCC annually, beginning with as its 2020/2021 budget.

For those students struggling with their mental health and brave enough to seek help for an issue that still carries considerable stigma, access to supports – especially in the form of individual counselling – is invaluable.

The longer a student has to wait for services and the more barriers put in place to accessing these supports, the greater the chance that their studies will be delayed or derailed over something that is largely preventable.

It is crucial the university show leadership on this issue and join its peers throughout the country by increasing its financial commitment to student counselling.

 

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