Mental health support on campus to be bolstered by innovative program
Lisa Erickson was on top of the world when she enrolled at the U of M to pursue a degree in nursing. Brimming with energy, she practically ran from one class to the next, earning top marks as she went. “I felt awesome,” she says, “most people who are manic will tell you it feels awesome.”
Diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a rare condition that affects about 0.3 per cent of the population, Erickson has experienced episodes of mania, depression, anxiety, hallucinations and delusional thoughts, all while working on her degree in nursing.
To say it’s been difficult is an understatement. However, she knows she’s not alone. Erickson is one of thousands of students at the U of M who has experienced some form of mental illness, be it depression, anxiety, addictive behaviors, or any other disorder that affects mood, thinking and behaviour.
Don Stewart, Executive Director of Student Support and Student Affairs, says that rates of anxiety and depressive disorders are at their highest in the 18 to 24 year age group, making young adults the most vulnerable cohort for mental health problems.
In fact, a spring 2013 survey of over 560 U of M students showed that 49 per cent had felt overwhelming anxiety at some point in the past year, about 33 per cent felt so depressed it was difficult to function, 47 per cent felt things were hopeless, and over five percent of students surveyed had seriously considered suicide.
Yet, as Stewart points out, somewhere between one half and two thirds of students with mental health problems still don’t ask for help. “They often don’t know that what they are experiencing is in fact a known, treatable condition,” he says. That in addition to a lack of awareness of available resources, and “self-stigma”—which Stewart says is the biggest factor that makes people fearful of coming forward—create significant barriers for students seeking help.
After her first onset of severe depression, Erickson suffered in silence for nearly a year before she was ready to ask for help. She says there just wasn’t the same level of awareness as there is today—and that was only five years ago.
A 2011 literature review commissioned by the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services found that while the number of university students living with mental illnesses continues to grow, more students are starting to come forward to seek help.
When Erickson was finally able to reach out for help, she was amazed at the level of support she received from the U of M’s Student Counselling Centre. “My counsellor was fantastic,” she says. “I think she saved my life.”
The Student Counselling Centre is part of a support system that brings together a number of mental health professionals on campus including psychologists, social workers, physicians, counsellors, and case managers, who work in tandem with advocates, advisors, chaplains, Elders, active living facilitators, and student groups to promote mental health and wellness.
According to Deborah Chan, a co-founder of the student-lead mental health group Active Minds, students often lose their support systems after they leave home to go to university. “It can be a very stressful time when you are trying to figure out what you’re going to do with the rest of your life,” she says. “It’s important to let them know they can find support.”
This year, with financial support from the RBC Foundation, the U of M will begin developing the Manitoba Online Overcoming Depression (MOOD) program—a new online counsellor-assisted treatment program that will enhance mental health accessibility for students, and advance a stepped-care model at the U of M designed to systematically match services to students’ needs.
Research has shown this type of counsellor-assisted online program to be effective at providing an accessible alternative for students who may not want or need to pursue face-to-face treatment. Because the modules for the program can be accessed at the student’s convenience, they are able to progress at their own pace while also being guided and monitored by program personnel. If students do not make progress, or begin to experience more difficulties, they can quickly be connected with further assistance.
The RBC Foundation announced in January 2016 that it would be investing $500,000 over five years to develop the (MOOD) program at the U of M. Funds will support the physical infrastructure, IT specialists, professional staff, and researchers needed to develop, implement, and evaluate a program of this nature. Once implemented, MOOD will offer extended services, and greater efficiencies, which will allow more students to access services in the way that is best suited to their needs.
Stewart says that “having a treatment alternative like this creates new opportunities for students who may not have sought mental health services in person.” Which Erickson (who was nominated for an RBC Believes in Youth Award for her volunteer work as a student mental health advocate with the Canadian Mental Health Association) sees as a step in the right direction: “I just want others to understand that there are people out there who want to help, particularly in university.”