Following the Ontario government’s announcement in March that it will invest $27 million over three years to provide new mental health services at Ontario colleges and universities as part of its Comprehensive Mental Health and Addictions Strategy, the University of Toronto plans to address the increased mental health needs of students across the three campuses.

To be chaired by vice-provost students Jill Matus, the Provostial Committee on Mental Health will develop a tri-campus Student Mental Health Framework and Strategy to explore “promising and best practices”, understand how mental health needs are currently being addressed on the three campuses, conduct a policy and guideline scan, and make recommendations.

“Specifically, at the University of Toronto we have seen an increase in service usage related to mental health concerns in our health, residence, accessibility, and counselling services,” said Matus in an email interview. “Correspondingly, faculty and staff are strengthening their awareness and knowledge of mental health needs through training opportunities in order to respond in the most appropriate manner to support the students’ identified needs.”

The goals of the committee will include evaluating the student mental health initiatives that have been developed over the past few years and educating and training members of the university community to recognize, understand, and effectively respond to students’ mental health needs.

“It’s recognized that campuses and divisions have their own community needs. However, the broad range of issues under review and recommendations for change will continue to strengthen our abilities as an institution to best support students with mental health needs,” said Matus.

It’s expected the committee will make formal recommendations to the provost for policies, procedures, and resources in support of mental health concerns by October 2014.

The committee will comprise administrative leaders, faculty, and staff across the university, as well as graduate and undergraduate students.

Five working groups will be established (with student representation on each) that will look at awareness and anti-stigma initiatives, education and training, curriculum design and pedagogy, policies and procedures, and services and programs.

The UTM Health and Counselling Centre has started a vlogging project this fall called UTMental, in which five UTM students offer different perspectives as a way to start talking about mental health.

Each of the students vlogs about four different topics each week. The first is an introduction, followed by stress, mental illness, and the “five ways to well-being”.

Chad Jankowski, the health education coordinator at the HCC, said in an interview, “The UTMental project is meant to challenge the stigma that surrounds the topic of mental health by creating a forum where it can be talked about openly and honestly.”

When asked why mental health is important, UTMental blogger and second-year psychology student Nolan Anderson said, “Mental health is important because as university students we tend to get pulled into a world where outward success and achievement is perceived as paramount, whereas, in fact, our overall sense of well-being is determined by our ability to balance our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs.”

“Simply discussing these issues in an open manner encourages students to speak more freely about them amongst themselves,” said Anderson. “Letting people know that they’re not alone in dealing with these problems, that there’s help available, and that one should never be ashamed or embarrassed to say they’re struggling with a mental health issue is my main objective.”

Garth Ngo, the mental health team leader on the Peer Health Education Team at the Health and Counselling Centre, spoke about the stigma surrounding mental health.

“When we have the flu, or break a bone, or pull a muscle, we’re encouraged to seek help. But when our mental health is challenged, we too often feel pressured to deal with it on our own or risk being labelled as weak or helpless,” said Ngo. “Mental health is important because it needs a voice; it needs to be discussed as openly as any physical ailment and those who suffer from it need to feel that they can reach out and ask for help.”

Fifth-year economics and environmental management student Jack Liao, another UTMental vlogger, said that he believes the vlogging “addresses the stigma in the sense that students are talking about mental health and not faculty or professionals. I think it’s more effective when the messages come from peers rather than the university or advocacy groups.”

“Mental health is important because it’s tied in with our overall well-being. It’s much easier to stay focused and motivated when it comes to doing anything if you’re in the right frame of mind,” said Gregory Henry, a third-year philosophy student and another of the UTMental vloggers. “To me mental health means training your mind, as you would your body, to perform better. Examples of benefits from this would be: decreased risk in anxiety and depression, increased self-awareness, increased motivation, and increased overall well-being.”

When asked whether students are equipped to provide peer counselling to students with mental health needs, Jankowski said, “Students offer each other informal support all the time and friends are often the first people we turn to when things aren’t going well. There are limits, however, to the extent to which other students, staff, and faculty who are not mental health professionals can provide effective support. Professional helpers have the training and experience necessary to provide that level of care and have a greater capacity to support students when there is a need for ongoing support.

Ontario’s postsecondary students with mental health concerns can now expect to have a new resource at their disposal: a 24-hour, 365-days-a-year mental health helpline launched by the government of Ontario that provides free, confidential, and anonymous access to mental health resources, including professional counselling. The new helpline, called Good2Talk, is delivered in part by Kids Help Phone and the Ontario Centre for Excellence in Child and Youth Mental Health.

“We want to let college and university students know they aren’t alone and that there is help,” said Brad Duguid, Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities, in a government press release. “The new supports will help them have a healthy, productive transition to postsecondary institutions and deal with newfound independence, both on- and off-campus.”

Comprehensive approaches to mental health care are growing in importance as the public understanding of mental health treatment shifts; the common medication-based approach is falling out of favour, as argued in a September 3 New Yorker article and an October 18 Toronto Star article.

This helpline is one of the 10 projects that received approval to move forward in round one of the Mental Health Innovation Fund. The other projects include the development of a province-wide peer mentoring program for students with mental health issues, training staff in universities in mental health first aid, and generally boosting support for those with mental health issues, with a special plan to improve the student experience for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students across the province. Ontario will begin accepting proposals from colleges and universities for the second round of the fund later this year.

Students are able to access the mental health helpline by dialing Good2Talk at 1-866-925-5454.

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