Mental health resources on Alberta campuses

Provincial funding could be provided in 2013 to help Alberta colleges and universities handle the increasing student demand for mental health resources, says SAITSA VP External Matthew Armstrong.

“I think it could easily be up and running by the end of this year,” Armstrong said of the funding plan in a recent interview

Mental health issues on Alberta college and university campuses was a hot topic of discussion at an Alberta Students’ Executive Council (ASEC) conference held at SAIT in November.

ASEC is working with Alberta Health Services (AHS) to implement something similar to Ontario’s $7 million Mental Health Innovation Fund to accommodate the surge in students seeking help for mental health issues on Alberta post-secondary campuses.

If all goes according to plan with the Mental Health Innovation Fund, the Alberta government would put aside money, and there would be a body created to determine how the money would be distributed each year.

Post-secondary institutions and groups across the province would then be able to apply for funding, Armstrong explained.

He said he would like the fund to be open to Alberta institutions and “everything down to student’s associations and student clubs” to apply for.

Alberta Health Services have been supportive of ASEC’s funding plan.

“[AHS] wants to implement something very quickly with the funding,” Armstrong said.

“It sounded like [AHS] had money put aside to invest in the issue,” Armstrong added of the discussion he and the Alberta student leaders had with AHS.

Armstrong said that progress on the fund has slowed since the November discussion. However, he’s confident the fund could be established by the end of the school year.

“If the money is there and the department has the ability to focus on it and put it as one of the main priorities they’re working on, then it could probably easily be done by the end of the year,” the VP external said.

The growth of mental health problems on Alberta campuses was evident in the results of a 2011 survey of 1,600 University of Alberta Students.

More than half of the students, 51.2 per cent, “felt things were hopeless,” and 52.1 per cent reported feelings of “overwhelming anxiety.”

More than 87 per cent of the students surveyed said they felt mentally exhausted, and 34.4 per cent “felt so depressed it was difficult to function.”

Armstrong attributed the rise to students being more open about coming forward with their mental health concerns and mounting pressure that students face on campuses.

“The bigger part of it is that stigma is breaking down,” said Armstrong.

Another root of the survey results is increased awareness of mental health issues, said Tom Shand, executive director of the Alberta division of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

“There is more awareness and attention being paid to mental health now,” said Shand.

SAIT isn’t exempt from the growing problem.

Armstrong said SAIT students have brought concerns to him about inadequate mental health resources on campus.

The VP External said students have complained they were unable to book appointments with SAIT counselling services right away.

“Because there is more awareness and because more students are willing to come forward more than ever, there’s more demand than ever,” said Armstrong.

SAIT counsellor Nina Hornjatkevyc said the fact people are coming forward is a good thing.

In the four years she’s worked at SAIT, Hornjatkevyc said the demand for counselling has been steady.

She said students typically wait about a week to see a SAIT counsellor.

However, “if someone has a really urgent situation, we will do everything we can to see them right away,” she added.

Counselling services also have daily drop-in times which remain unbooked in case students seek immediate assistance.

Anxiety and depression are the most common issues students seek counselling for, according to the registered psychologist.

Hornjatkevyc said she would like to see SAIT councelling services expanded.

SAIT has only six counsellors on staff to offer treatment to more than 7,000 registered students.

“It would be great if there was even more help out there for everybody,” Hornjatkevyc said.

If students facing mental health issues are not able to find help, Hornjatkevyc and Shand warned that the results could be serious.

“If people have to wait [for help], something that could have been relatively straightforward to address can become more complicated,” said Hornjatkevyc.

“The right thing is to be making sure those [post-secondary institutions] are recognizing things and offering people help, hopefully before they get to the point of taking their own lives,” said Shand.

Armstrong said he would like to work with counselling services when the funding goes through to ensure SAIT counselling doesn’t have to turn away people in crisis.

However, Armstrong doesn’t believe counselling alone will solve the mental health struggles some students face.

“Just stuffing more money into counselling services on campus doesn’t address all of the issues,” he said.

“Having a Mental Health Innovation Fund would allow for new and creative ways to address some of these issues,” Armstrong said.

With the current funding model Alberta colleges and universities use, the schools receive a base grant transfer from the government per student, and it’s up to the school to determine how much, or if they want to spend money on health services on campus, Armstrong explained.

“Right now it’s up to the institutions and there’s no consistency,” he said.

“ASEC would like to see a minimum set of standards to ensure there is service on each campus,” said Armstrong.

About Alicia Gerrior 11 Articles
As a writing and communications major in the journalism program at SAIT, Alicia Gerrior worked as a reporter for The Press during the 2012-2013 academic year.