The Ontario University and College Health Association (OUCHA) has recognized that university-age individuals are particularly at risk of developing mental health problems.
The report cites a 2016 survey that states that 46 per cent of Ontario post-secondary students felt so depressed they couldn’t function, 65 per cent had experienced “overwhelming anxiety,” and 11 per cent had attempted suicide.
The results of this report are shocking, but this is not new information. Conversations around mental health at Western are constant. We disclose, we discuss and we debate how best to tackle this glaring issue. But how are we actually doing it?
It is also impossible to ignore the fact that, despite the dire need for more services for students, some students still don’t access the services because of the pervasive, and deep-rooted nature of stigma. While some students celebrate others who have courageously discussed their journey with their own mental health, there are still many students at Western whose battles occur below the surface. How are we helping them?
Many student groups at Western continue the immense tasks of proactive and reactive ways to address mental health. The increase of students supporting students, and peers supporting peers, is incredibly telling of our generation, and I believe it is helping. However, university life itself, and the health services offered, are still not conducive to fostering positive mental health.
Universities and colleges are more than academic institutions: they are vibrant communities that host young people at a time when they are beginning to develop into the people they will be for the rest of their lives.
University gives students the tools to study, and to work, but what tools are we being given to be healthy, functioning human beings? To thrive?
Western is currently in the process of developing a Mental Health Strategic Plan, one that I sincerely hope goes beyond the solely reactive ways to handle mental health issues on our campus. We are in a desperate place. The culture needs to change, and while it is admirable that students are trying to change it, and their work is important and needs to continue, we desperately need support from the institution that has such a strong say in shaping how our years are spent here. We need more from Western.
Our society is beginning to shift to a social environment that does not belittle those who struggle, or render internal hardships or vulnerability as weak. We are beginning to better understand, to have empathy and to celebrate the courage of those who share their experiences in order to better the experiences of others. However, right now, our campus does not have the infrastructure, capacity or funding to allow for more specialized support services that we so desperately need.
As always, the issue is funding, and lack of resources for physical and mental health services on campus is halting progress. Insufficient resources and services provisions, coupled with the aforementioned issues of providing services to an ever-changing undergraduate population, whose needs are always in flux, necessitate the creation of dedicated, custom-built solutions.
So what can we do?
The University Students’ Council has always believed in advocating to Western and beyond in any and every way that students are vulnerable. If our job is to enrich the undergraduate student experience, we cannot ignore that a huge part of that is ensuring that students are experiencing proper mental and physical health, to be at a place where their experience can be enriched. Any barriers to that, no matter how big, is our job. Whether it’s advocating, or whether it is doing it ourselves.
Focusing on ways that we can work with Western to improve the status quo is essential, but we cannot ignore the unique position and flexibility that we are lucky enough to have, that allows us to creatively respond to situations in a way that sometimes Western can’t.
That is what we are trying to do. Instead of getting trapped in a pattern of linear thought about what the University needs to change, we realized it was time to look to the community and beyond.
Exam time, also known as “peak time” when students access the most health supports, are constantly an issue that deeply affects our student body. And while, in an ideal world, the culture around these times would change to be more conducive to positive student health, we have to find a way to aid the issue as it stands.
This was a troubling position for us. On the one hand, we know that during exam times students are pushed to a point where they have to ignore their health to focus on their work. This is not okay. We should not have to find ways to treat crises, because university life should not be pushing students to crisis.
However, we knew we could not ignore this glaring issue. We know that we needed to find a way for students to have accessible support services during these peak times, and after all of the campuses resources closed for the day. We knew that the University is not prepared to handle the wave of students on the brink of crisis come mid-November.
After long discussions with the Canadian Mental Health Association’s (CMHA) crisis centre in London, a partnership was born. CMHA provides walk-in support to the London community in a creative and important way. We are incredibly happy that starting Nov. 15 the USC is partnering with CMHA to provide a crisis support worker on campus in the evenings for drop-in services. The CMHA Crisis Support Team will be available during the following:
Nov. 15 to Dec. 15
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday
5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
USC Peer Support Centre — UCC Room 256
What is important about this new development is that it will help many students during exam times when their health gets de-prioritized. However, we have to continue to try to change this culture from one where students are pushed to a dehumanizing level in order to keep their average. To one where health and wellness must be at the forefront of everything in a university setting. After all, isn’t university supposed to prepare us for the rest of our lives?
— Jamie Cleary is the vice-president of the Western University Students' Council