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A tumour in our schools: The case for better mental health resources on university campuses

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At a glance, it's not a great time to be a university student. While Canada's economy stalls, tuition continues to increase -- and student loans, the common solution, only temporarily alleviate the pain. The cost of food is rising, as is the cost of housing. Meanwhile, the Canadian dollar is plummeting, much like the hopes of many new graduates seeking to find sustainable work in their fields.

The facts paint a bleak and bitter picture for our youth, who warily eye the future in the same way sailors eye approaching cloudbanks. Is it really any surprise that mental illness runs rampant on Canadian campuses?

The science has already identified a serious problem. According to Statistics Canada's 2012 Canadian Community Health survey, Canadians aged 15 to 24 are most likely to suffer from mood disorders and substance abuse. They're also significantly more likely to commit suicide.

On campus, studies have examined everything from fluctuations in student moods to the prevalence of specific conditions like anxiety and depression. Again, the results paint a distressing picture. In 2013, the American College Health Association (ACHA) conducted a survey of 34,039 Canadian students from 32 schools. Of these students, nearly 54 per cent responded that they had "felt things were hopeless"at some point during the 12 months prior to the survey.

Hopelessness should not be one of the dominant feelings a student experiences. It is fundamentally at odds with the "university experience" -- that is, the vision of university life that is advertised by most Canadian schools. From grade nine onward, our youth are taught that university broadens their minds and their potential, that through a university education they can live new experiences, meet new people and better prepare ourselves for the job market. It's not a bad message, and it's not wrong. However, it's also not complete.

It's time to embrace mental health as an important component of the university experience.

We are past the days of "nut houses" and "loonies," and our students seeking treatment are no longer a small minority. The stigma surrounding mental illness cannot remain a barrier that separates students from the treatment they require. In the ACHA survey, more than 12 per cent of respondents said they had been diagnosed or treated for anxiety. Depression was only slightly less prevalent, at 10 per cent. The numbers are consistent with those found in the wider Canadian population. According to the mental health commission of Canada, one in every five Canadians will experience mental illness at some point in their lives.

So why are students still fighting for better counselling and mental health services?

On campus, the lack of support given to mental health services can have very real consequences. Consider the story of Susannah Feinstein, whose depression eventually forced her to drop out of McGill. After two years of increasing despondency, Feinstein had sought help from the school's mental health services. There, a triage therapist informed her she was "not depressed."

Feinstein went back to her normal routine, but things soon took a turn for the worse. "My grades plummeted," she recounted, writing in Macleans. "The depression grew progressively worse until one day I had to barricade myself in a closet until an overpowering wave of suicidal thoughts passed. Two days later, I walked out of my first final of the semester and with my last ounce of sanity withdrew from all my classes and left McGill."

Feinstein isn't an isolated case. Across the country, universities and colleges are seeing an increased demand for their services -- and many are struggling to meet it.

Carleton University is only one of many examples. Maureen Murdock is the Director of Carleton's Health and Counselling Services, which treats about 10,000 unique students each year -- about 2,000 of which visit the clinic for its counselling services. Between 2008 and 2015, the number of counselling appointments nearly doubled, growing from 5,946 to 10,479.

Carleton has not been entirely lacking in attempts to accommodate students' need for mental health services. Murdock's team of seven dedicated mental health physicians has seen several new additions since 2008, including a full-time mental health nurse, three more full-time counsellors and two new part-time GP psychotherapists.

But despite these additions, Carleton's mental health services have not been able to meet demand. In this respect, Carleton is like many schools across the country. Carlton's clinic is funded through OHIP, as well as a student health fee that is tacked onto tuition costs. Despite the need for additional funding, Murdock says universities should not have to foot the bill -- not when redistributing funds could compromise a student's educational experience.

"You're a student, and you pay tuition. How much of your tuition should go to heath," she asked, "and how much should go to education?"

To Murdock, it's a trick question. "Students shouldn't have to put money in mental health," she says. Instead, a solution can be found at the provincial level, at the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.

"Mental health care hasn't always gotten its share of resources," she says, "and the reason we have an issue on campus is because there hasn't been enough invested in mental health services in the community."

While the battle for funding plays out, the situation continues to worsen on Canadian campuses. In the ACHA report, 37.5 per cent of students said they "felt so depressed it was difficult to function." Chillingly, nearly 10 per cent had seriously considered suicide in the 12 months prior to the survey. Approximately seven per cent had intentionally hurt themselves.

We can no longer ignore the pleas of our students.

As Feinstein wrote,

"Ignoring the first signs of depression is like ignoring a suspicious lump growing on your body. Like a tumour, depression, if left untreated, will wreak havoc on your health in virtually every respect. It will become more dangerous to you and perhaps those around you.

It may well kill you."

When it comes to addressing the need for better mental health services in our schools, Canadians simply can't afford to wait.

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