With thousands of students heading back to school this year, the University of British Columbia is ramping up its mental health services to meet a spike in demand that’s also hitting other post-secondary institutions across Canada.
UBC’s Vancouver campus has been steadily increasing free mental health services for students since 2015, investing $2.5 million annually in providing counsellors, boosting programs and diversifying services.
“UBC is very similar to campuses across Canada in that we are seeing increased demand for mental health services, which is why the university has invested in many ways,” said Patty Hambler, director of health promotion and education at UBC Student Services.
According to U.S. research firm Education Advisory Board, 13 Canadian post-secondary institutions across the country have seen a 35 per cent increase in counselling appointments between 2011 and 2015.
Last year, 28,069 UBC students accessed mental health professional support, which could include physicians, counsellors, mental health nurses or psychiatrists) at the Point Grey campus — almost half its approximately 55,000 student population. An additional 4,669 students sought help through Empower Me, a 24/7 helpline at UBC that connects students to counsellors.
Experts say there could be many factors behind the increase in demand, such as increased awareness of mental health and well-being; reduced stigma; the proliferation of social media, which has been linked to negative effects on mental health; or a more competitive and uncertain job market and financial stresses.
In recent years, the university also focused on improving mental health services for the nearly 12,000 students who live on campus, adding counsellors to residences and boosting health education programming at dorms.
Working with faculty members, it also introduced a pilot project for second-year mechanical engineering students to bring mental health literacy into the classroom. Similar initiatives are being adapted by other departments, including nursing and biology.
Over the past two years, UBC added mental health nurses and a nurse practitioner at the student health service centre, which operates out of UBC Hospital, though the service is provided by the university, not by the local health authority.
These programs are in addition to existing services, which include the Wellness Centre, which is staffed by wellness peers, and the Empower Me helpline, which is offered in multiple languages.
“Ultimately, the goal is to increase access for students and diversify what we offer, so there’s different entry points for students to access,” said Hambler.
Some students may find it challenging to adjust during their first year in university, so UBC tries to prepare incoming students for the different learning environment with its Jump Start orientation program, which helps freshmen make friends, build connections across the university community and become aware of resources and services available on campus.
“We’re really encouraging students to be proactive about their health,” said Hambler. “If they can build up resilience and focus on eating well, and getting enough sleep, then they can take on those challenges a bit better.”
Last year, Simon Fraser University launched a 24/7 mental health and support service that can be accessed through a phone or app to meet growing demand among its students.
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