Campaign seeks to emphasize Mental Health Matters for university students

HALIFAX – A campaign to improve mental health services for university students has launched in Nova Scotia, which is the first of its kind in the country.

The Canadian Federation of Students – Nova Scotia (CFSNS) launched Mental Health Matters this week, a campaign meant to raise awareness about student mental health on campus and pressure universities, colleges and the province to invest more in student mental health.

“Student mental health has been a growing concern for years and years and years. Students have become very concerned with, often, the lack of services of campus,” said Anna Dubinski, the chairperson for CFSNS.

Dubinski said students, particularly first years, face a plethora of issues including moving away from home, student debt, part-time jobs, personal relationships and staying on top of their academic studies.

She adds the main stressor is the fact tuition rates are increasing.

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“Increasing tuition fees and student mental health aren’t different issues. They’re actually one and the same issue,” she said.

“That adds to anxiety and taking on that much student debt can stay with you for most of your life and go far past your graduation date.”

CFSNS and the King’s Students’ Union set up a table at University of King’s College Wednesday to pass our fliers and buttons to students.

President Michaela Sam said students are having trouble accessing support.

“We know our students are able to get in in emergent situations but sometimes it’s difficult for our students to receive ongoing care and ongoing appointments, which is important in a place like a university when so many of our students face anxiety and depression,” she said.

“We’re seeing a lot of students drop out because they aren’t able to cope with whatever is going on in their lives and we want to be able to support that.”

Julia McCluskey, who is in her second year of the social work program at Dalhousie University, said she can feel the stress of being a university student.

“Dalhousie has high tuition. Rent is high in Halifax. We’re expected to juggle everything financially. It often seems impossible,” she said.

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“You have to pay the bills. You have to pay the rent. You have to pay tuition. You have to pay for books.”

“Sometimes it just feels like it’s impossible to get everything done, to pull everything together,” she said.

Fellow students agree, saying university students are facing a lot of demands nowadays.

“The stress can get to you,” said Logan Crozir, a first-year student at Dalhousie University. “I’m going to have to be able to juggle a job as well as my workload so that’ll be a challenge.”

“We all get stressed out. Everybody has things to deal with,” said Nico Miraftab, 23, a graduate student at Dalhousie University.

Kids Help Phone said it saw a 58 per cent increase in school-related counseling sessions from August to September 2013, which is the most recent data available.

The organization said almost 40 per cent of all school-related counseling sessions in August 2013 were related to transitions, such as starting a new school.

Dr. David Pilon, program leader for Specialty Mental Health Services at Capital Health, said 75 per cent of mental health illness start before the age of 25, meaning university students are particularly at risk.

“We know university students are under increasing stress, perhaps moving away from home for the first time, feeling the extra need to perform academically and given the significant costs of university education,” he said.

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Pilon said he hears from his university colleagues that supply for mental health support cannot keep up with demand from students.

“They feel there’s a tremendous amount of students coming their way and they’re not always able to meet the needs that the students present with,” he said.

“I can’t help but think, given this is my life’s work, that if we had additional services to more quickly respond to all of those needs then that would be better for our community in general.”

Nicholas Hatt, the dean of students at the University of King’s College, said the school focuses on peer support, training faculty and staff and working with resident advisors to create healthy social environments in university residences.

But he acknowledges there is still much work his school and other universities have to do.

“Mental health is an ongoing concern. There is lots of work to do and it’s great to work with CFS and with the students on improving access to these services,” he said.

Dubinski also said CFSNS plans to start a postcard campaign in the fall to ask universities in the province to do a thorough review of student mental health services on campus.

“We need to know exactly what the situation is. We need to know exactly how much funding is being put into mental health services. We need to know if those services are effective,” she said.

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A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Wellness said there are no plans to increase mental health funding at this time.