Post-secondary schools need to take decisive action on mental health

Mental health literacy training should be a requirement of post-secondary staff

Online learning, social isolation, financial hardship, and fear of COVID-19 infection are taking a toll on the mental health of post-secondary students.

As a first-year master’s student, I’ve struggled with feelings of fear, hopelessness, and frustration.

Approaching the first anniversary of the COVID–19 pandemic, post-secondary institutions need to take decisive action to be proactive in addressing the mounting mental-health crisis. Mental-health literacy needs to be woven into the academic curriculum and supported within the fabric of classrooms.

The four components of mental-health literacy are reducing stigma, positive mental health, knowledge of mental-health issues and treatments, and help-seeking efficacy.

Every student must be equipped with knowledge as they face the challenges of today and the future.

Gravity of the Issue

A Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) COVID-19 document identified that more than 70 per cent of students reported that they have felt stressed, anxious, or isolated.

The effect of COVID-19 is being studied by international organizations, including the World Health Organization, which identified mental health as an integral component of responding to the pandemic. It has reported that 75 per cent of school prevention-and-promotion mental-health services and programs have ceased or been disrupted across the world.

British Columbia’s provincial health officer Bonnie Henry has said that all public colleges and universities need to prepare for a safe resumption of full return to on-campus learning in September.

Revisions to the COVID-19 Go-Forward Guidelines for B.C.’s Post-Secondary Sector – jointly developed by post-secondary institutions and the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Training – must place mental-health literacy at the forefront, as data show that 80 per cent of students reported that COVID-19 has negatively impacted their mental health.

First steps: Challenge stigma

“I am scared to tell anyone how I feel because they will think that I’m crazy,” a student might say.

Stigma is a negative stereotype, resulting from a lack of knowledge. Everyone must understand that it is not a form of weakness. Those who are stigmatized are devalued, which can result in discrimination and unjust treatment.

We need the facts, not the myths. To decrease stigma, we must demonstrate acceptance, dignity, respect, and equitable treatment. Then students will be more willing to reach out for help.

It’s time to open up the conversation and be transparent. Mental health is just as important as physical health. Promoting positive mental health and well-being is vital to academic success and overall well-being.

Fear, worry, and stress are normal responses during the pandemic. Positive mental health allows you to function, have meaningful social connections, positive self-esteem, and be resilient.

Being able to identify stress and learn how to successfully overcome it is fundamental to good mental health. At times, students may feel like they can’t keep functioning.

Educate about mental health issues and treatments

Have you heard your friends or family use the words depressed, anxiety or OCD, as everyday terms? We must be educated about the true meaning of these.

Students need to be engaged in thoughtful discussions about how mental illness affects a person’s thinking, feelings, or behaviour, which can cause distress and difficulty functioning.

Mental illness is a medical condition that has been diagnosed by trained professionals and can be effectively treated, so it is possible to have a mental illness and have positive mental health.

Early intervention is key

Did you know that during the pandemic’s past year, 16 per cent of post-secondary have seriously considered suicide and almost three per cent attempted suicide?

Students need to know that they are not alone. Help can come from a friend, professor, teacher assistant or coach. No one expects post-secondary staff to be mental-health-care providers, but they can support students in need.

It is essential that students are aware of the mental health supports and services as they return to classes in September. Post-secondary institutions need to develop a sense of community through professional services and peer support programs.

The time is now

Post-secondary institutions need to implement mental-health literacy to all their communities. Students are stressed, stigma is prevalent, and there is not enough education or resources – and institutions need to do more.

I urge all post-secondary institutions to utilize the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s National Standard of Canada for Mental Health and Well-Being for Post-Secondary Students as a starting point to implement major structural changes to educate about mental-health literacy.

It’s about time that mental health literacy training be a requirement of post-secondary staff. No one expects them to diagnose mental-health issues; rather, they should be educated and aware.

Let’s follow the lead of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, which has embraced a free Canadian educational resource to build knowledge and empower their community.

What can you do? Share your voice with your postsecondary institution – advocate for mental-health literacy. It’s a priority!

Kaelynn Shinkaruk is a graduate student in the global communications program at Simon Fraser University.

This story originally appeared in the Georgia Straight


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One response to “Post-secondary schools need to take decisive action on mental health”

  1. The mental health of young people needs to generate as much societal concern — and government funding — as does physical health, even though psychological illness/dysfunction typically is not immediately visually observable. But that should apply with secondary high schoolers as well as post-secondary students.

    Since so much of our mental health comes from our childhood experiences, I would like to see child-development science curriculum implemented for secondary high school; and, ideally, it would include some psychology and neurodiversity lessons, albeit not overly complicated. It would be mandatory course material, however, and considerably more detailed than what’s already covered by home economics, etcetera, curriculum: e.g. diaper changing, baby feeding and so forth. I don’t think the latter is anywhere near sufficient (at least not how I experienced it) when it comes to the proper development of a child’s mind.

    For one thing, the curriculum could/would make available to students potentially valuable/useful knowledge about their own psyches and why they are the way they are. And besides their own nature, students can also learn about the natures of their peers, which might foster greater tolerance for atypical personalities.

    If nothing else, the curriculum could offer students an idea/clue as to whether they’re emotionally suited for the immense responsibility and strains of parenthood. I believe the wellbeing of all children — and not just what other parents’ children might/will cost us as future criminals or costly cases of government care, etcetera — should be of great importance to us all. A psychologically and emotionally sound (as well as a physically healthy) future should be ALL children’s foremost right — which includes a societally functional education, religious or not — especially considering the very troubled world into which they never asked to enter.

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