Supporting Student Mental Health in Ontario: Exploring Best Practices and Identifying Gaps

Supporting Student Mental Health in Ontario: Exploring Best Practices and Identifying Gaps was written by Ken Chatoor, Natalie Pilla, Lena Balata, Haleemah Shah & Amy Kaufman, Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Ontario’s postsecondary education system has a robust mental health strategy that is evolving to meet the increased demand for services

Demand for student mental health services has grown steadily over the past two decades. Postsecondary institutions have seen double or triple the instances of depressive symptoms, anxiety, eating disorders and psychotic symptoms and more students than ever are reporting multiple types of mental health issues. A new report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) finds that Ontario has a relatively well-funded and resourced postsecondary education (PSE) mental health support strategy compared to other Canadian jurisdictions. Institutions are adjusting to the increased demand, but structural and systemic forces make it challenging for institutions to implement programs, hire staff and plan comprehensively for the long term.

In its 2022 Letter of Direction to the agency, the Ministry of Colleges and Universities (MCU) requested that HEQCO review the activities that Ontario PSE institutions and those in other jurisdictions are undertaking to support students’ mental health. HEQCO researchers completed a jurisdictional scan and conducted 27 interviews with stakeholders involved in the procurement and delivery of mental health programs on PSE campuses across Ontario.

Most government investment for campus mental health comes from the province. In October 2020, the Ontario government invested $19.25M for institutions and partners to develop frameworks and strategies to improve mental health on campus to address the impact of the pandemic. This was followed by $7M in February 2021 and $2.39M in May 2021. The Ontario government’s primary mechanism for supporting campus mental health is the Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health (CICMH), which works with partners across the province to develop resources such as practice-based guides and toolkits and facilitate a community of practice.

The pressures of food insecurity and housing challenges increase the demand for mental health support services. Although these types of pressures fall outside the jurisdiction of MCU and institutions, they are impacting campuses and student mental health, particularly for international students. Institutions are adjusting to the increased demand for support by transitioning away from services being delivered by a specific centre on campus to more decentralized, whole-campus approach that emphasize access to a range of supports. The stepped-care model, which has been widely adopted by institutions across Ontario, emphasizes a flexible, client-led approach that empowers students to be actively involved in decision-making about what treatment they receive. Data- and service-delivery silos, coupled with inefficient funding structures, limit institutions’ ability to respond to increased service demands.

HEQCO recommends the following for government and its partners:

  • Increase awareness of and access to culturally relevant supports for students that reflect the needs of their campus communities.
  • Leverage the potential of CICMH, which is uniquely positioned to play an expanded role in supporting institutions, by expanding financial support for research, structured partnership development and dissemination of resources, such as toolkits and training modules, especially for smaller institutions.
  • Coordinate cross-sectoral strategic dialogue to dismantle information silos and develop efficient funding structures to improve efficiency and effectiveness.
  • Work with community and health care partners to collect and use data to monitor mental health trends to inform decision-making and allocation of resources.
  • Increase incremental funding to help institutions address the growth in demand for services and increasing complexity of need.