Post-secondary students’ mental health: a waning sense of support during a pandemic

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Martin Luther King Jr once said that “you don’t need to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” 

While he was talking about the long climb toward racial equality, something that is still deeply relevant in today’s social climate, I am particularly drawn to its relevance as it relates to post-secondary students’ mental health.

With the start of a new academic year, and as the coronavirus rages on, it is time we realize that post-secondary students are grieving. What they have lost, and what they are dealing with, is hard to quantify or measure: no socialization, no hustle and bustle of life on campus, and no access to services on campus — at least not in the traditional way. It all adds up to an increasingly waning sense of belonging and support.

It can be awfully lonely out there, even at the best of times. With that in mind, that first step toward support when you need it can be daunting. In a typical year, there is a drastic underrepresentation of students who need mental health support and ones that are actually receiving it. Moreover, students are diverse, requiring equally diverse support and care that reflects their individual needs, concerns, experiences, and abilities.

We have long focused on the stigma that surrounds mental health (for example, Bell Let’s Talk Day), which has successfully opened up many conversations on this difficult subject. Beyond this though, what remains true for young people is often a lack of problem recognition that prevents them from seeking support when they first need it.  

Students normalize problematic behaviours and engage in social comparison to the point that they believe what they are experiencing is normal as a post-secondary student. They do not feel their problem warrants professional help. So, by the time they need help, for those few who do seek it, they are in crisis and typically requiring a longer, more intensive treatment. 

Not only do we have a problem of insufficient services, but we are also not supporting our students to see that they are deserving of help and recognize their own needs.

        “Simply adding ad hoc services or siloed programs will not address the problem   we are facing. Throwing money at the problem with no strategy behind it will ultimately fail.”

With more than two million post-secondary students in Canada starting a new semester while adapting to COVID-19, this is set to be a year with unique mental health challenges unlike any other. This is also at a time where, even pre-COVID, reports showed that more than 30 per cent of students have anxiety, 13 per cent seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months, and over two per cent attempted suicide. These are uncertain, unique times that will require unique and innovative solutions.  

One innovation I have long advocated for is the Stepped Care 2.0 © model. In this approach, the most effective, yet least resource-intensive treatment is delivered first, with users only “stepping up” to specialist services as required and depending on the level of patient distress or need. 

By incorporating various intensities and diversifying the types of support students can engage with, there is a greater likelihood they will reach out for support in the first place and find the level of support that’s right for them. This diversification will support the emergence of more effective therapeutic relationships by matching students with professionals who share their language, culture, and gender identity, for example. 

In addition, having online resources at their fingertips, now more than ever, increases our chances of helping those students in need while avoiding the lengthy and painful disruption to school, family, work, and community life. It is this type of innovation — a full-scale reorientation of our approach to offering supports — that I believe will make the biggest impact. 

As a member of the Technical Committee who is responsible for developing and writing the Standard on Mental Health and Well-Being for Post-Secondary Students (PSS Standard), the importance of a range in supports and an inclusive, innovative service delivery model are key factors in our efforts to support students’ mental health.   

Simply adding ad hoc services or siloed programs will not address the problem we are facing; we need a coordinated, strategic and systemic approach to the issue of post-secondary mental health. Throwing money at the problem with no strategy behind it will ultimately fail. Therefore, the Standard is an important first step in helping institutions establish a framework, which will include policies, programs, and processes to support and promote student mental health in a holistic way.

Having recently joined Studentcare, the leading provider of student health plans in Canada, as director of its National Mental Health Strategy, our message is clear: there is no issue too big or too small — and the earlier you seek support, the better. 

In our aspirations to give students the best future possible under incredibly challenging circumstances we must truly reflect on how we are serving them and if we are doing them justice. The task may seem daunting, but it is worth it, so just take the first step.


Dr. Cawley is the director of Studentcare’s National Mental Health Strategy. A specialist in post-secondary student mental health and e-mental health solution, an experienced consultant and mental health program designer with experience in clinical research, she received her Ph.D. in psychiatry from McGill University.

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By Dr. Elizabeth Cawley

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