CEO, Mental Health Commission of Canada
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I remember my post-secondary years like they were yesterday.
And not because it was the joyful time I had hoped for.
For me, it was a time of turmoil — a time when I lost my closest friend to suicide, and her death made me realize that I had a lot of unresolved trauma of my own.
I’m telling you this because there are some people who question whether mental health matters on campus. People who say that universities are institutes of higher learning — full stop. That they don’t have a responsibility or an obligation to see students through the rough patches they encounter, to teach them how to bend — not break — when confronted with life’s inevitable challenges.
To them I say this: Were it not for a caring dean of nursing, who put me on a path to therapy, insight, and healing, I know I would not be sitting where I am today, leading the country’s national body on mental health.
Her kindness, her perception, and her insistence that I seek care reinforced the feeling that I was someone worth investing in. And I believe that every student, no matter their background, social status, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity, deserves the same kind of compassion I received.
Thankfully, many campuses today are realizing the value of investing in student mental wellness, and they are stepping up to the plate to bridge gaps in access to services. In fact, nine institutions so far have piloted The Inquiring Mind Post-Secondary training (TIM PS) — an evidence-based program that teaches students how to hold up a mirror to gain an understanding of their mental state — while another 20 are beginning to roll it out.
As I write this, some 3,000 students in Canada have been introduced to simple behavioural therapy techniques to manage stress and to the mental health continuum model, which describes mental wellness on a colour coded scale — green (healthy), yellow (reacting), orange (injured), and red (ill). The Working Mind, the workplace predecessor of TIM PS, has clearly demonstrated the program’s capacity to improve help-seeking behaviour and create more supportive, caring workplaces.
It makes terrific sense to start young people on an early path to self-care and self-awareness: to teach students that their academic progress goes hand in glove with their capacity to build resiliency, encourage them to look after their mental well-being, and support friends and family who may be experiencing a mental health problem.
With mental health services on campuses being oversubscribed because young people are more willing than my generation was to step up and ask for help, many institutions are recognizing the need to do things differently. This proactive approach will prevent a crisis from bubbling up.
By intervening appropriately, they will be sending new graduates out into the world who are equipped not only for the intellectual demands of their careers — but also for emotional rigours they’re sure to encounter.
With $6 billion in lost workplace productivity every year, training post-secondary students in TIM PS should bolster their mental wellness, as well as their productivity.
Students are hardly “delicate flowers,” as a hard-nosed columnist once suggested. They are people on a search for knowledge, a quest for understanding. They should be encouraged to look both outward and inward to find the answers they seek.
Supporting them, and helping them to thrive, both academically and emotionally, will lead to a healthier and happier society.