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Editorial: Bridging the gap between students and mental health resources

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Rates of stress, anxiety, and depression among university students have been increasing, as seen in recent studies conducted by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, prompting the need for increased access to mental health services on campuses.

Although financial constraints have put a damper on increasing mental health support, university-offered resources and student-run services are still widely offered across campus at McGill. Despite the vast array of mental health services, there are still many students who are not receiving the support they need. Whether this is due to a sense of alienation from institutional resources, a lack of student awareness, or any other number of reasons involving symptom recognition or stigma is uncertain. However, in order to bridge that gap at McGill, the university must improve communication with students about the resources available, and the campus discussion surrounding mental health must continue to move towards destigmatization.

Awareness and support for mental health have improved at McGill and within society in recent years, as evidenced by initiatives such as the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Mental Health Awareness Week, and Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk campaign to promote conversations about mental health. Still, there is a long way to go before the stigma surrounding mental illness is eradicated. Destigmatization requires raising widespread awareness of the realities of mental illness in order to gradually eliminate peoples’ notions of mental illness that are based on judgments. Education about mental health must exist on a spectrum, and discussions about different factors mental illness are necessary steps towards eliminating stigma. Until destigmatization happens—not only at McGill, but throughout society—many people suffering from mental illness might not seek support out of fear of being judged.

Another barrier that inhibits students from seeking help is that they might not be aware of the different services at their disposal and what they offer. If the vast array of services offered by the university is not clearly communicated, students will likely not access the mental help support that they may need.

Open and healthy discussion on mental health is also needed to make the mental health services at McGill more approachable. McGill should seek to promote these services as more personable in order to further prompt students to use them. In addition to the promotion of mental health resources by McGill, peer support is also required to encourage students to seek help. Friends and classmates should be cognizant of issues that others might be facing, and provide the positive encouragement that people need to go seek out help. Encouragement from people within a student’s daily life is crucial to getting them help early on.

Universities must undertake concrete actions to ensure that students have access to mental health services. The mere presence of these services is not enough to ensure their practical use.

The professional mental health services offered by the university don’t have the capacity to handle all of the cases that are brought to them, which also leads to students not receiving adequate support. Understaffing and lack of financing for these services have forced them to adopt policies that limit student access. There are long waiting times and high rates for appointments with Mental Health Services (MHS). In addition, the Counselling Service (CS) limits the number of visits allowed per person to 15 per year. The inclusion of professional mental health workers in student-run services, which are easier for students to access, could help to improve the ability of campus resources to meet students’ needs.

Outside of the McGill Residence system, there is also a lack of a support structure that provides information and encouragement to students in a small community atmosphere. For upper year students or the many first-year students not living in residence, this requires promoting services to students in a targeted way. A mention of different mental health services from a professor at the start of the semester, for example, could provide a similar sense of accessibility, communication, and support that would encourage students, within their daily lives, to use the service. The substructure of mental health resources needs to be connected to university and student life in a meaningful way that doesn’t separate the resources from the students’ normal environment.

The unfortunate truth is that the majority of individuals with mental health problems remain without support. People often minimize their own symptoms and may think that their problems are not serious enough to require help. In addition to working toward systemic destigmatization and increased awareness of mental illness as a gradient of wellness, universities must undertake concrete actions to ensure that students have access to mental health services. The mere presence of these services is not enough to ensure their practical use. Students require transparent communication of campus resources for treating mental illness, and targeted encouragement from different actors to seek the support that they need.

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