Recommendations support student mental health, academic success

(Edmonton) The University of Alberta is taking a comprehensive new approach to supporting student mental health and wellness, following the release of a report outlining 54 recommendations aimed at helping students achieve personal and academic success.

As part of a special provost’s fellowship on mental health, the report Student Mental Health at the University of Alberta contains 54 recommendations that fully capture student mental health issues, improve services, guide structural changes and ensure initiatives are sustainable.

“Supporting student mental health is foundational to the academic success, satisfaction and well-being of our students,” said Robin Everall, associate dean of students and author of the report. “The best way to offer our support is through mental health and wellness strategies and plans that include every level and touch each individual of the institution. It really does take an entire campus to support a student.”

In a 2011 survey of U of A students, more than half reported experiencing feelings of hopelessness in the previous year, including 87.5 per cent who indicated they at times had felt overwhelmed. Helping students stay healthy and thrive in the face of complex lives is a common concern of post-secondary institutions, Everall said.

“All post-secondary institutions are dealing with this and we all need to think about our role and mandate in helping students become successful citizens,” she said.

The 54 recommendations span 10 categories covering a full spectrum of mental health supports and services:

  • Demonstrate a visible campus commitment.
  • Expand wellness initiatives and raise their profile.
  • Allocate dedicated resources.
  • Move towards cohesive mental health and wellness programming.
  • Engage our community.
  • Enhance student-centred communications strategies.
  • Create institution-wide infrastructure.
  • Review and enhance orientation.
  • Serve the needs of international students.
  • Enhance outreach initiatives.

Many of the recommendations reflect initiatives that have already been completed or are in progress, such as expanding the successful Unwind Your Mind program beyond exam time—including the popular Furry Friends pet therapy program—and creating four new psychologist satellite offices where students can access mental health support in their own faculties. The U of A has also created a new Community Social Work Team to help students become more engaged and able to connect with resources, while also helping students, staff, and faculty build capacity and resiliency within the university community.

“One of our goals as a campus community is to be innovative about how we meet demand for mental health support and make services more accessible for students, through multiple access points,” said Everall. “By bringing support to the students—and not the other way around—we are making mental health and wellness more visible, more accessible and less stigmatized to ensure everyone gets the help they need.”

Sean Trayner, a master of public health graduate student who works at University Wellness Services and helps promote initiatives like Unwind Your Mind, says students have a “huge” appetite for information about mental health services, noting the subject is out in the open and students are willing to talk about their experiences. Trayner says he tries to maintain a healthy balance, separating studies, work and private life with strong social support to reduce stress.

“There’s a lot of good work going into mental health and a lot of people invested in it now,” he said. “The university and the staff genuinely care about students and student success, and mental health is a big part of that.”

Everall said her report represents a comprehensive look at mental health support; some recommendations can be implemented in the short term, whereas others are more long-term in focus. Several will make use of the $3 million in provincial funding the U of A received last winter, part of a provincewide initiative to improve student mental health on Alberta’s post-secondary campuses.

“This approach allows us to be proactive in reaching out to students, but it also improves our capacity to react to students’ needs, which we know are always evolving. We will do everything we can to help students succeed because it’s the right thing to do, for the students and our entire community.”

Read the report (PDF)