By Villeneuve, Melissa on September 7, 2017.
The provincial government is contributing increased funding for post-secondary mental health initiatives across Alberta, including at the University of Lethbridge and Lethbridge College.
Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt announced on Wednesday that a combined $1.2 million per year over the next three years would go towards student mental health supports at the two institutions. The money could be used for everything from peer supports to clinical counselling to screening and prevention.
“We heard loud and clear from students that increased support for mental health programs was their number one priority,” said Schmidt. “It’s a challenging time when you’re 18 years old and coming to college or university for the first time. A lot of students find they’re struggling with mental health issues as they’re trying to learn to live on their own and deal with the pressures of academic study.”
Representatives from both post-secondary institutions and Lethbridge MLAs Maria Fitzpatrick and Shannon Phillips were on hand for the announcement at Lethbridge College. U of L president Mike Mahon said it’s important to work collaboratively between the post-secondary institutions, including Lethbridge College and Red Crow College, to support all students.
The U of L will receive $1 million per year, while the college will receive a $220,000 annual investment. The funding is a continued investment for the U of L, but represents new money specific to mental health for the college. Health and wellness initiatives were previously funded through internal operations, said Paula Burns, LC’s president and CEO.
“This is a fantastic investment in student mental health,” said Burns. “This money really does go to help us implement the plans we’ve been developing over the last couple of years.”
Lethbridge College has a partnership with Shepell, which offers a 24/7 online and telephone support service. Burns said there are also counsellors onsite, and connection to community supports as well. The new funding will help with education and prevention, but also integration to ensure students are being seen by the appropriate practitioner.
“The reality is that as an educational institution, we don’t have a full health service for every student that needs mental health,” said Burns. “So we need to make sure that we get the appropriate service and then integrate them into whatever community service that exists as well.”
In 2016, the National College Health Assessment survey was conducted at 10 post-secondary institutions across the province. It showed a high incidence of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.
“One in 10 students have contemplated suicide, which is way too high,” said Minister Schmidt. “That just points out to the need to have mental health supports on campuses all across the province.”
With good supports in place, mental well-being is linked to academic achievement, learning, retention and future achievement.
Laura Bryan agrees. The fourth-year student at the U of L, and Students’ Union faculty representative, shared her personal struggle living with a general anxiety disorder and how mental health supports help with her post-secondary experience.
Bryan found her first year was “great” but that it was really hard for her to “feel settled and comfortable in daily life.” Moving away from home for the first time and not knowing anyone made it very difficult. She suffered from social and test anxiety.
Once she reached out for counselling, it helped her integrate into life on campus much better. Her academics improved, her confidence grew and she felt more comfortable getting involved in extracurricular activities.
It was difficult to access counselling at first due to long wait times, she said. Back then there was less funding for mental health, so she went her entire first semester without support. Once mental health funding started to increase, particularly around her second and third years, it became a lot quicker to see a counsellor, she said. Now it’s “far and above” what it was three years ago.
Having access to mental health supports for students is incredibly important, she said.
“It tends to be overlooked when it’s really the most important thing and it tends to be what drives us in life. I think once we have those initiatives, it really makes life better in all aspects.”
The government is investing a total of $25.8 million over the three-year period to protect and improve mental health resources for post-secondary students at publicly funded institutions across Alberta.
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