The COVID-19 pandemic has had the dual effect of negatively impacting student mental health while also disrupting the delivery of mental health supports. These dueling challenges come at a time when postsecondary institutions are working to shift their approach to mental health support from reactive to proactive. A proactive model is one built to engage, prevent and educate. Part of this approach to mental health is the intentional inclusion of culturally relevant supports to reflect the diversity of the community. The importance of these supports transcends the pandemic: Ontario’s population is diversifying, as are its college and university campuses. To foster a culture of care, mental health supports must reflect the culture, experience and needs of all Ontario PSE students.
As HEQCO recently highlighted, mental health is an urgent issue on campuses across the province, with impacts being felt disproportionately by members of BIPOC communities. While our previous blog post demonstrated the unique impacts of mental health at an individual level, the issue also needs to be considered at an institutional level. Our exploration of this issue led to a common theme: Mental health supports need to be proactive and must be embedded in the culture of institutions themselves in order to reach all students. This embedding can be achieved by regularly and directly consulting with students and institutional staff as well as striving to evaluate mental health of community members. By doing so, institutions would be better positioned to understand and address the diversity of needs in their communities. This proactive approach allows institutions to be in a position reach all students before mental health crises occur. Moreover, students and institutional staff would be better equipped to find the mental health resources that best suit their own needs.
Moving towards a culture of care
To use a concept coined by the JED Foundation, campuses should continue to move towards a “culture of care” through the provision of culturally relevant and accessible mental health resources that allow underrepresented students to feel supported. A culture of care approach to mental health support promotes emotional well-being and aims to prevent mental health crises before they happen. This type of approach also seeks to ensure that all students are included, and that student mental health remains an ongoing priority for postsecondary institutions.
Here are some examples of culturally relevant mental health resources and support in PSE:
- The Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health (CICMH) Campus Equity Toolkit provides a framework to establish a culturally safe campus which starts with the individual. CICMH recommends the use of non-stigmatizing language to foster student safety and encourage social inclusion through meaningful allyship. These strategies require an awareness of oppressive practices and inequities that underrepresented students continue to battle.
- Colleges Ontario, the Council of Ontario Universities, the College Student Alliance and the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance released a joint report in 2020 that advocates for a “whole community” approach to ensure that students have access to treatment both on and off campus. This is especially important because counsellors with culturally specific specializations for underserved groups (e.g., Indigenous, Black, LGTBQ+, etc.) may not be available within the institution. Therefore, the “whole community” seeks to establish an integrated system that supports access to a range of mental health specializations that are targeted to underrepresented students.
- The Steve Fund recommends active engagement with students to elicit feedback on mental health and well-being. This includes regularly administering surveys and focus groups for underrepresented students to understand their needs and challenges related to mental health. The Steve Fund also recommend being intentional about including diverse voices on committees and consultation boards leading mental health initiatives in campus communities.
- The University of Toronto Mississauga Health and Counseling Centre lists culturally specific resources on their website to support their student community. While simple, this approach reflects the practices of fostering a culture of care on campuses by creating access points to mental health supports that embody diverse perspectives.
We understand that the work of addressing mental health for students, especially right now, may seem like a huge challenge. However, continued progress with meaningful action will lead to healthier campuses and communities. As more effort goes into supporting student mental health, institutions must make sure that all available resources contribute to creating a culture of care for all students.
Lena Balata is a researcher and Ken Chatoor is a senior researcher at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.