About this Brief
Mental health support is a topic that has been discussed for several years now, and the inefficacy of mental health support options have been exacerbated significantly by the COVID-19 pandemic. Western University is fundamentally responsible for the well-being of all of its students. As a result, the following brief is intended to give comprehensive recommendations to Western University and the Government of Ontario about the available post-secondary mental health support resources.
Currently, Western’s academic counsellors and mental health professionals are not reflective of the diversity of Western’s student population. Students have expressed that Western does not provide sufficient support to LGBTQ2+ and BIPOC students, including Indigenous students. Indigenous students have reported that they find the mental health support resources offered by the Indigenous Student Centre (ISC) more effective than those offered by other Western departments, in part because of the intersectional lens that is offered. However, the ISC only has the budget for one full-time academic counsellor, who is currently booked to their full capacity. In addition, many counsellors do not have proper qualifications to treat international students, leading to them being unable to access the appropriate resources for their struggles. Furthermore, many resources offered by Western are not designed with students with disabilities/learning exceptionalities in mind. To combat all of the listed issues relating to diversity and mental health, the USC suggests that all digital resources/information and in-person programming should comply with AODA, including but not limited to closed captions, described video, and ASL interpreters. Furthermore, all Western counsellors should participate in EDI and mental health training regularly. Western should also aim to diversify its team of academic counsellors and mental health professionals to better reflect the student body wherever possible.
Consolidation, Digitization and Accessibility of Resources
Many students are unaware of mental wellbeing service options offered on campus and in the London community. There is no one clear, standardized process for students seeking mental health support to follow. As a result, students are currently being referred to other external mental health services without follow-up from Western. When an external referral is necessary, Western should follow up with the referred students to ensure that they are receiving sufficient support. In addition to in-person programming, Western should prioritize the digitization of all mental health resources and programs to improve accessibility. Furthermore, the University should create a centralized online appointment booking system to ensure that Western’s approach to providing mental health support for students is both comprehensive and systematic. Western should also develop a standardized mental health education package for all student and staff groups to follow. This package would educate students on how to access mental health resources and staff on how best to support students. In addition, Western should create online profiles for its mental health professionals so that students may choose someone with the appropriate qualifications, counselling approach, and lived experience for their needs as well as increase their level of comfort.
Communication & Promotion of Resources
The University needs to improve the communication and promotion of its existing resources to improve knowledge of what options are available to students. There are four ways the University can achieve this. First, this resource package recommended in the previous section should be distributed to all students via email. This resource package should also be included in all course syllabi and promoted by faculty on the first day of classes. Second, many students are unaware of the 24/7 CMHA crisis counselling and other off-campus resources available. To combat this, the University should actively promote CMHA 24/7 crisis counselling and other off-campus mental health resources to students. Third, the University should provide links to current staff and student OWL mental health modules on the OWL homepage to ensure that they are easily accessible to everyone. Finally, to centralize all of the student-centric mental health resources recommended throughout this brief, the University should create a mental health “course” in OWL in which all students are automatically enrolled.
For a mental health service to be student-centric, it requires that students are the key stakeholder. To ensure this is the case, students should be consulted frequently with regard to programming/service needs and improvements. As students can provide realistic and timely feedback, engaging with students for feedback will greatly improve the quality of services. Student engagement, alongside the University’s existing consultations with mental health stakeholders in London, such as the London-Middlesex Health Unit, will result in care that students can access throughout both campus and city. Furthermore, student mental health leaders (such as Active Minds, MyHBA, and faculty/affiliate/professional school councils) should be consulted frequently, in addition to the USC, with regard to programming/service needs and improvements.
Academics & Mental Health
Academic counselling should be provided in a standardized fashion across all faculties in order to eliminate existing inconsistencies when seeking support. In addition to this, training should be standardized across all faculties to ensure that all academic counsellors receive accurate and up-to-date information. One of the major concerns for students is the stress associated with switching programs. The University should develop specific programs to support students who have recently switched programs and are subsequently experiencing anxiety related to acclimating to their new program and/or career path. Another concern is the stress associated with instances where students have multiple exams scheduled on the same day. The University should avoid scheduling multiple exams on the same day where at all possible. However, should multiple exams within the same 24 hours occur, the University should give affected students email notice as soon as the exam schedule is confirmed. The aforementioned email should explain why multiple exams occur at Western and why scheduling multiple exams within a 24-hour period was unavoidable. This email should also direct students to the appropriate wellness resources that deal with academic stress and feeling overwhelmed. In the long term, academic counselling across all faculties should be overseen by one office to ensure the standardization of processes and to enforce a baseline standard of care.
Mental Health Awareness & Stigma
Seeking mental health support is a big step and can be daunting. Relying on students to seek out and engage with mental health services on their own may exacerbate the mental health concerns for which they are seeking support. To combat this, the University should create additional programming and social media campaigns specifically focused on reducing the stigma surrounding mental health. On the first day of classes, the University should encourage all professors to outline 1) the importance of taking care of your mental health, and 2) the mental health resources available to students. During Orientation Week, an emphasis should be placed on eliminating the stigma surrounding mental health and the importance of taking proactive measures to support personal mental wellness.
The current ratio of students to residence counsellors is far too high, with only two counsellors available to serve approximately 5000 students. Additionally, residence counselling is only offered in Ontario Hall, which relies on the assumption that the student seeking support is well and comfortable enough to travel to an unfamiliar space. Furthermore, many students are unaware that residence counsellors can issue academic accommodations. In addition to this, there are a variety of issues in regard to the training that both residence staff and sophs receive due to their obligation to support the wellbeing of their students. Residence staff are often exposed to upsetting and/or traumatizing situations but do not receive sufficient mental health support themselves. Comparable to this, the nature of residence sophing is such that residence sophs often act as the primary mental health support for first-year students. This role often leads to sophs being the first point of contact and dealing with upsetting and/or traumatizing situations frequently. In order to combat this, Western should increase the number of residence counsellors to one per building, with an additional counsellor for residences with populations over 900 students. Furthermore, counselling appointments should be available in each residence building. In order to better support residence staff and sophs, residence managers should be regularly and proactively checking in on the mental health of their student staff and soph teams. When a student staff member or soph has dealt with an incident, residence managers should immediately follow up to connect them to the appropriate mental health resources, academic supports, and/or accommodations. Residence managers should also follow up a second time at a later date to ensure the student is receiving the support they need. Furthermore, all residence staff and all head sophs should receive Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) training.
Decisions as to which aspects of a service should be changed or maintained should always be data-driven, however, the university currently lacks data that can be effectively utilized to support student well-being. While data is collected with regard to student utilization of mental health services, little data is collected with regard to student feedback on the efficacy of that service and the quality of care received. The University should also collect race-based data, as well as orientation-based data for LGBTQ2+ students. However, as this is sensitive data, it is imperative that this data, excluding general demographic information, be kept confidential where applicable. For Indigenous students specifically, it is imperative that before any information is collected and shared, it be first approved by the Indigenous Student Centre. Lastly, to ensure that collected data is being effectively utilized, on campus units that support mental and physical health should be regularly reviewed and updated every three years. When collecting data for students seeking mental health support, the University should solicit information about where the students found the information regarding the service in order to gauge what promotional materials are effective. Western should continue effective campaigns and discontinue those that are ineffective.
The campus community should be aware of the utilization of and satisfaction with mental health resources. Students should also know where Western is financially investing as well as how student fees and donations are being spent on mental health resources. Currently, only some utilization and quality of service data from Western’s mental health services are publicly available. Financial investments with regard to mental health are publicized to the campus community, yet the actual allocation of funds to specific units/services is unclear. The University should make all utilization and quality of service data from Western’s mental health services publicly available and easy to access. The University should transparently share funding levels and their sources, as well as how sustainable each source is. Student funding to mental health support services on campus should undergo regular review to ensure fee transparency and effectiveness.
External Recommendations (Government Programs)
Whole of Community Approach
The USC calls on the provincial government to update Ontario’s Comprehensive Mental Health & Addictions Strategy to formally recognize postsecondary students as a distinct population cohort, rather than grouping them in with the broader “youth” category. By doing this, more tailored services can be provided. Furthermore, the USC recommends that Western University adopts The Okanagan Charter. This charter stipulates that postsecondary institutions embed health into all aspects of campus culture, in an effort to lead health promotion action and collaboration locally and globally.
Appropriateness of Mental Health Services
The provincial government should expand the Good2Talk helpline to include peer listeners and other interactive forms of mental health therapy. Furthermore, the Government of Ontario should increase spending on mental health and addictions to a minimum of ten percent of the overall provincial health care budget, with a focus on providing gender and culturally-sensitive mental health services.
Mental Illness Prevention
The provincial government should increase funding to maintain the Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health (CICMH). Furthermore, the Ministry of Education should create and integrate a mandatory curriculum from K-12 to help prepare students for mental health challenges they may face in postsecondary education.
Indigenous Student Supports
The mental health needs of Indigenous students should be recognized as unique and should not be conflated with that of other marginalized groups. The Government of Ontario should increase the amount of funding available through the Indigenous Student Success Fund and the funding for the program should be continually adjusted for inflation. The program should also allocate funds to organizations every 2 years to allow for greater organizational stability and less administrative burden.