University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) does some great work in fostering an inclusive and equitable environment for students of different ages and races. However, when it comes to invisible inequities, like mental disorders, how do we rank? What are we currently doing for students with mental health concerns on campus, and more importantly, in the classroom?
Mental health concerns can have a huge bearing on one’s ability to perform academically. In fact, a web survey completed by the National College Health Association found that Ontario students’ felt as though they received lower exam scores, lower grades in courses, and even dropped courses due to anxiety (27.2%), ADHD (3.9%), depression (17%), and overall stress (37.6%) . Thus, it is imperative that we have a system in place to help give these students the opportunity to be just as successful as those who are mentally well.
Statistics show that this is a pressing matter, as the number of post-secondary students that feel anxious, overwhelmed, and hopeless continues to climb . Moreover, the age group of most university students, especially first years, correlates significantly with greater symptoms of mental illness. Statistics Canada claims that in 2009, 87,859 people aged 12 to 19 were diagnosed with a mood disorder. In 2012, that number jumped to 111,930 . Accordingly, we need growing supports to combat these growing numbers.
Although we have counselling services that play a vital role in facilitating mental wellness, these services are mainly focused on diminishing distress symptoms and crisis. What about prevention?
The majority of student interaction on campus takes place not only in the hallways with friends, but also in the classroom and during office hours, with professors and teaching assistants. These individuals are at the foreground of student life and the way it is experienced. As such, any action (or inaction) on their part can have great impact on student perspective, which, in turn, influences student mental well-being. We should, accordingly, be targeting this facet of the university as a foundation for support and prevention.
Though there has been more recent acknowledgment of mental health issues, this is foreign territory for most post-secondary institutions. Regardless, students could greatly benefit from those who are thoroughly trained to recognize signs of mental illness.
CACUSS (the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services) identifies this in their publication, “Post-Secondary Mental Health: Guide to a Systemic Approach” (referred to as “The Guide”). The Guide breaks down a proposed framework into seven key components of approaching and dealing with mental health, one of which is “Community Capacity to Respond to Early Indications of Student Concern.” This component alludes to professor and instructor involvement. According to the Guide, “Those who interact with students in the course of their day on campus are in the best position to notice early indications of concern.”
Currently underway on campus, the Health & Wellness Centre and Mental Health Network at UTSC are considering training tools that will be most effective for students, staff, and faculty when it comes to learning how to support students attending post-secondary institution. They are looking into implementing a training tool from morefeetontheground.ca for faculty, staff, and students to use as of the fall of 2015. The objective of this training tool is to help clarify the definitions of certain mental health conditions, and help individuals to recognize, respond, and refer when needed.
On a similar note, CACUSS Post-Secondary Mental Health Community of Practice recently sent out a survey to Student Services to gauge familiarity and comprehension of The Guide. Preliminary results of the survey were presented at a CACUSS conference in May with next steps underway, says Basma Chamas, a fifth year student at UTSC who sits on one of the CACUSS committees.
Likewise, Mary Nguyen, a fourth year student at UTSC, claims that staff and faculty training on mental health would promote student mental health and overall well-being. She says that it would also send the message that mental well-being should be prioritized, especially since a student’s undergraduate career and postgraduate aspirations can be heavily influenced by staff and faculty.
Of course, it’s not only about staff, student, and faculty contributions. On a large scale, we need the university itself to incorporate student mental well-being as a priority in its policies; CACUSS has also identified a need for a systems-wide approach to creating a campus environment that is conducive to mental health and learning. Such an approach would hold the University accountable, campus wide, for enhancing and maintaining the mental health of community members. Further, using such an approach would extend the focus of mental health dissemination beyond the individual (i.e., strategies such as treatment and skill-building) to the whole campus (i.e., considering environment, organizational structure, policies, and practices) .
The University of Toronto’s Institutional Commitment emphasizes the importance of adjustments to course design and curriculum, but there still remain some issues with the current standard: “Professors can better accommodate students with mental illness by evaluating the limitations of their syllabus. In terms of participation marks, for example, it can be limiting to those who have social anxiety or panic attacks to be put on the spot. Making these grades worth more than 5% can be the make or break between a fail and a pass for a student,” says Mary. There continue to be classes where participation marks are inaccessible to those who may have social anxiety. That is, these marks carry too much weight and some students are simply incapable of getting the marks.
The University of Toronto should assess the effectiveness of adjustments to course design and curriculum, pedagogical practices, community-building efforts, education and training programs, and the rethinking of services and programs. Despite what progress has been made, there’s still a fair deal to be done.
Currently, it is also under the University of Toronto’s Institutional Commitment to integrate mental health strategies on campus by means of providing a wide range of supports and programs. This includes looking at underlying stressors associated with poor mental health and enhancing programming that allows students to cope effectively with stressors . Again, prevention is key. We should aim to cultivate resilience such that there is no need for crisis management.
There is even a grassroots program at UTSC that does just that. Flourish aims to help students grow intellectually, socially, and emotionally and to translate this growth into action, habits, and purpose. The program helps UTSC students to cultivate emotional, physical, and academic resilience.
Its objective is to focus on our strengths and what we do right rather than our weaknesses and what we do wrong. The program also focuses on different stressors associated with student life and how to use your strengths to overcome them.
Evidently, some great developments, such as the Flourish program, are on the rise. The ultimate hope, however, is that UTSC becomes as accessible and inclusive an institution as possible, so that those with and without mental illnesses will have access to the same opportunities in education.
This article originally ran in Issue I, Volume I: Post-Secondary Mental Health: http://mindsmattermagazine.com/issue-v1/
By: Christina Gizzo
Edited by: Alisia Bonnick
Image by: Adley Lobo
 American College Health Association, National College Health Association. (Spring 2013). Ontario province reference group data report. Retrieved from http://www.cacuss.ca/_Library/Provincial_Reports/NCHA-II_WEB_SPRING_2013_ONTARIO_PROVINCE_REFERENCE_GROUP_DATA_REPORT.pdf
 CBCnews. (2013). Health. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/mental-health-disorders-spike-in-post-high-school-transitions -1.2251790
 CACUSS. (2013). Post-Secondary Student Mental Health. Retrieved from http://www.cacuss.ca/_Library/documents/CACUSS_Handbook.pdf
 University of Toronto. (2015). We all have a role in our students’ mental wellness. Retrieved from http://mentalhealth.utoronto.ca/