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Editorial: Mental health initiative raises more questions than answers

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Last week, Bell Canada’s “Let’s Talk” initiative announced a $1 million gift for mental health initiatives, to be split evenly between the Universitè de Montrèal (UdèM)and McGill.The half-million at UdèM will be spent on various peer-support pilot projects. At McGill, a significant portion of the money will be spent on the McGill Wellness Portal, an online resource intended to function as a self-diagnosis and referral tool. While the additional attention to mental health issues is always positive, there is currently a lack of clarity as to how the money will be spent, as well as many other important details of this initiative, such as what kinds of information the site will provide.

The use of the grant to create this portal could add value for students or end up a boondoggle, depending on what the site looks like and how the funds are distributed. Ideally, this money would be best used to bolster the ranks of mental health counsellors—a service that has shown strain in recent years due to insufficient staff—but the circumstances of this corporate grant might demand the creation of an entirely new program instead of simply putting the money to existing services. If so, the portal could at least partially alleviate the problem of over-booked specialists simply by directing more students to an online resource for initial diagnosis that is limited in use by bandwidth rather than office space. A resource that enables students to initially diagnose their situation on the portal, which the Wellness Portal intends to do, saves that time slot for someone in need of seeing a specialist right away.

The existence of this grant, and the attendant media attention, is certainly a net positive in terms of raising awareness of mental health as an issue. However, raising awareness is an act without action

Beyond that baseline, what else would be useful for students? The  suggestion that the website is a place for self-diagnosis is currently nebulous. Will it serve as a pipeline to professionals, or recommend treatments? Will will the process work? In addition, the site should serve as a trusted resource for members of the university community, and should be able to stand on its own. At the same time, the site should strive not to duplicate already accessible resources, and focus most on providing information on conditions known to be prevalent among students. Another benefit of this portal could be to direct students to existing resources that are currently under-utilized, perhaps because of an out-of-the-way location on campus, or a lack of promotion.

It would be remiss to discuss this without noting that the program is being financed by one of Canada’s telecommunications and media giants. Apoplectic discourse about the apparent ‘corporatization of campus’ aside, it should be noted that McGill is a partner in an initiative designed at least in part to improve Bell’s ‘brand’ in the eyes of consumers–when a mining company funds a geology program or a scholarship, the quid pro quo might be more obvious to the observer as a way of recruiting future employees. In Bell’s case, there is a mix of genuine charitable intent with the inevitable image management. The good this donation can provide, as in many cases, almost certainly outweighs any perceived or actual harm created by the corporate funding. McGill needs money to provide the services it should provide, and university funding isn’t exactly in abundant supply at the moment. Still, the portal should focus on its purpose and not provide an overly “branded” experience.

Finally, there is the question of data and privacy. After a few years, this portal—if it is useful enough to be widely used—will hold an enormous amount of data. This data, perhaps anonymized,  will contain information on the stresses and conditions of students. What will happen to this data? Will any be kept? These questions need to be answered for students to feel secure in using this service.

The existence of this grant, and the attendant media attention, is certainly a net positive in terms of raising awareness of mental health as an issue. However, raising awareness is an act without action. To be truly useful to students beyond the flurry of press releases and news stories, the money needs to be put to work for a service that provides assistance to students in need. Anything less is just talk.

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