Across the country, university campuses are seeing a sharp increase in the number of students seeking help dealing with mental health issues. As Dr. Su-Ting Teo, director of Ryerson University’s health services, told CTV’s W5 in a recent episode, ?I’ve been here almost 13, 14 years and . . . the sort of volume and the crises and the need we’re seeing is increasing year after year.?
Why this increase? While there is no hard data yet, there are a number of factors that mental health workers suggest could be behind it. Post-secondary students are younger now than they used to be, with most going to college or university right out of high school. This means a massive transition for most students, who go from living with their parents and having most of their needs taken care of to suddenly having to juggle new acquaintances, new responsibilities, and possibly a new location?all with a reduced support system. Then on top of this, these students take on the stress of having to succeed academically or face having wasted significant resources in the attempt.
Additionally, the debt loads post-secondary students have to shoulder are higher than they have ever been, and the number of people graduating is growing. Together these mean that competition for the jobs that require post-secondary education is growing increasingly fierce, leading in turn to more pressure to have the top marks needed to get noticed by employers. And all of this while students are really just starting to figure out what they themselves are interested in and good at.
Fortunately for students in campus-based institutions, this increase is not going unanswered. Through campus services and private organizations such as The Jack Project, there is an increase in both the resources and the awareness being devoted to identifying people having these problems and providing them with the assistance they need before things lead to their worst, and most visible, conclusion?a suicide on campus.
But how are these factors affecting distance schools like Athabasca University? The answer is that we really have no idea. In January of this year, AUSU and AUGSA wrote to the government of Alberta to complain about AU being left out of a round of funding designed to support mental health programs. However, this should come as little surprise; because AU has no mental health programs to speak of. Unlike campus based institutions, AU does not face the stigma of a suicide on campus, and therefore has less incentive to move forward with any mental health programs. Even now, if you look on the AU site, any reference to counsellors deals with course and career counselling, not stress or mental health.
In fairness, AU students are different than the norm. They are generally older than students at campus-based institutions, and usually are already more established in their careers and lives. This means they may have a support system which they do not have to leave behind to attend post-secondary. However, Athabasca University has a higher percentage of first generation learners?the first in their families to undertake post-secondary learning?so these support systems may not be equipped to provide support specific to academic stresses.
Additionally, AU provides education to people who normally cannot attend post-secondary, including those who already have significant stresses in their lives, like single parenthood or a pre-existing mental health issue like an anxiety disorder. And we also know, simply by our own experience and by looking through the AUSU forums, that there are many at AU who are simply feeling overwhelmed.
Athabasca University says it is ?dedicated to the removal of barriers that restrict access to and success in university-level study and to increasing equality of educational opportunity for adult learners worldwide.? Yet it has no sort of service to even identify, to say nothing of assist, learners who are facing mental health issues from the stress of their studies or life. Perhaps it is time it did.