Citing a growing demand among university students for mental-health services, the Alberta government is pledging $10.5-million to expand treatment options and develop strategies for universities and colleges across the province.
The funding includes $3-million over three years to each of three universities, as well as $1.5-million in student group funding.
"This is an investment in the mental health of our next generation of community leaders," Health Minister Fred Horne said in a written statement, after making the announcement in Edmonton Wednesday.
The funding, part of Alberta's Addiction and Mental Health Strategy, is a small but significant amount – it comes as the province is facing a large, and growing, deficit, with orders for each department to rein in costs. The University of Alberta, University of Calgary and University of Lethbridge will receive the funding.
It comes at a time when universities say mental-health needs are growing. U of C has seen severe psychiatric disorders among its students increase 5.6 times in the past seven years. Officials in Lethbridge, a southeastern Alberta city of about 85,000 people, cite a 76-per-cent increase in bookings of student counselling sessions over the past five years. The U of A, meanwhile, participated in a National College Health Assessment that showed 6.8 per cent of students seriously considered suicide in the past year.
"We need to be innovative in how we're helping our students succeed, and part of that is how we promote mental health in our campus communities," Frank Robinson, dean of students at the U of A, said in a news release. In a recent interview, Dr. Robinson said attitudes are changing as universities become more aware of mental health issues facing students.
"This is my fifth year [as dean]. And earlier on, the word 'mental health' sounded a bit scarier than it does now. And I think it's because of the whole campus-wide effort … we're working hard to normalize the word 'mental health,'" he said.
The funding is meant to hire staff to boost the availability of counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers, while also developing a mental health triage program – treatment strategies that can be implemented in the province's other post-secondary institutions.
Researchers have said the spike in demand by university students for mental-health services is due to many factors, including mental-health treatments that allow more people to reach university, as well as unique pressures once they're there. Those include high debt loads, competitive programs and poor job prospects, all of which weigh on mental health.
"[The funding] will allow us to enrich the overall student experience and provide a broader range of services to support the unique personal and academic pressures facing students today," University of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon said in a statement.