Last week marked the launch of The Globe and Mail's Student Advisory Council, a group of postsecondary students from campuses across the country that will shape and contribute to our education coverage. The first topic for discussion on our Facebook group was how students at campuses across the country are dealing with the mounting stress of essays and looming fall exams. Are campus mental health services sufficient for the demand?
Some students reported that they could get an appointment the same day while others said there are wait times or mandatory screenings students must go through before being seen. One student at Quest University in B.C. reported "a web of support" that includes academic advisers, peer counsellors and student floor reps. What there was unanimous agreement on was that professors are low on the list of people students felt they could turn to for anything beyond an extension.
The reason students cited? Class size. "With huge class sizes, they didn't really know me from Adam," said Michael Smith, a University of Calgary student. The latest publicly available data from a prominent survey of student engagement backs up the anecdotes. Students at small universities in North America report having more informal contact with professors than those at larger institutions. They talk about career plans with professors more frequently, have more opportunities to talk about class material after class and work with faculty on academic projects that are not directly tied to their coursework.
Universities are "stress factories," said Su-Ting Teo, the director of student health and wellness at Ryerson, a mental health expert who headed this year's first ever Canadian national survey of student well-being. Teo says that students juggle competition for jobs and increased tuition fees with the pressures everyone else faces as the pace of technology increases. Beyond the external pressures, however, the internal culture of universities needs to shift, she said. "The culture still exists of it being an elite institution...Survival of the fittest is very different from a supportive environment that will help students succeed."
Teo believes that if student mental health is going to be tackled effectively, the wall between the faculty and student services has to come down. "There is a bit of tension on how do you maintain academic standards while supporting the whole student?"
Often, faculty are the closest and first point of contact between the institution and the students. So universities need to get faculty aware of and trained on how to handle student inquiries that go beyond how to write a term paper, Teo said. A university does not need to be small to provide that help – as the infrastructure of UBC's Early Alert program shows – but students say it helps. We'll do more on how students find the resources they need to reduce the stress in coming weeks.
Simona Chiose is The Globe and Mail's Education Editor. You can follow her on Twitter here.