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Understanding the Mental Health Needs of Post-Secondary Students

Student looking anxious on the steps of school
Published Date

Forty-six percent of post-secondary students report feeling too depressed to fully function and the number of students with identified mental health challenges has more then doubled over the past five years.

In response to such, Ontario Shores has established partnerships with Ontario Tech University (Ontario Tech), McMaster University, and University of Toronto Scarborough Campus (UTSC) to introduce Recovery Colleges within these post-secondary institutions. We are moving into our third semester of Recovery College courses at Ontario Tech, are planning to launch the first semester of programming at McMaster University, and pilot a Recovery College course at UTSC in the coming months.

As most Canadian Recovery Colleges are community-based, entering the post secondary space will offer a new and innovative approach to the Recovery College model that will further contribute to mental health system transformation as well as provide access to support for students and young adults – a population disproportionately affected by mental health issues (Council of Ontario Universities, 2021). This initiative is impactful because it puts students in the driver’s seat of mental health related programming at their school as they are able to influence and co-design program offerings. This can reduce the power imbalances that often exist between service providers and consumers and ensure that programming is relevant and meaningful to the students themselves. It is also hoped that the co-authoring of programming can positively impact the ownership and the relatability of Recovery College supports.

The Recovery College expansion to the post-secondary space is intrinsically linked to Ontario Shores’ vision of providing care that focuses on recovery and mental wellbeing as well as its values of working together as a ‘community’. This collaboration also aligns with our strategic direction of revolutionizing our work with partners to develop and provide coordinated mental health care. Leveraging our previous experience and knowledge of launching and operating a Recovery College for the past four years at Ontario Shores, our goal is to support Ontario Tech, McMaster University, and UTSC with implementing and ensuring sustainability of Recovery Colleges that are conducive to the mental health needs of students.

At each institution, a needs assessment explores the mental health priorities and challenges faced by post-secondary students and how Recovery College courses could best address those needs.  At Ontario Tech, this undertaking revealed that anxiety and depression are the two most prominent mental health concerns among post-secondary students. Primary stressors reported included academic, family, financial, and employment stress. The needs assessment also revealed that the majority of students who access mental health services are in their first or second year of study indicating that transition from secondary to post-secondary settings, accompanied with other stressors such as leaving home, adjusting to independent living, academic and peer stress may pose a considerable challenge for post-secondary students. Long wait times was identified as a significant barrier to accessing mental health services. Both students and clinicians saw the need and benefit of providing Recovery College courses and 86 per cent of students indicated they had some interest or would be open to attending Recovery College courses.

These findings informed the topics for three Recovery College courses: 1) managing general anxiety, 2) open peer discussion and 3) practical/life-skills. In the managing general anxiety course, entitled We to Wellness, discussions involve education about what anxiety is, boundaries, wellness planning, and coping strategies. The open peer discussion group, entitled OTU Chatter, provides a safe space for students to connect with each other through sharing their experiences as post-secondary students. In the practical/life skills course, entitled Life Hacks, discussions involve the things that students are expected to know but never taught. This discrepancy between what they are expected to know and what they feel prepared to do can be distressing. Curriculum involves topics like laundry, budgeting, and meal preparation. This course is very powerful because different students have different skills that they share with each other resulting in empowerment and connection. The content of these courses was co-produced by Ontario Shores and four Ontario Tech students with lived experience of mental health conditions. Based on these conversations, the curriculum was developed and delivered by Post-Secondary Peer Support Specialists, Rachael Battistelli and now, Holly Harris. In these courses, students engage with curriculum that is important to them and share their experiences. They develop meaningful connections with each other and engage in a safe space where they can feel validated and hopeful. The processes that were used at Ontario Tech will be used to inform the approaches at McMaster and UTSC while being mindful of specific practices and structures of each institution.

If you have any questions about this initiative or would like to know more about Recovery Colleges, please contact  Holly Harris at @email.

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