A Roadmap for Federal Action on Student Mental Health

Mental health is a growing concern for all Canadians. To date, it is estimated that approximately 20% of Canadians will experience some sort of mental illness in their lifetime. In 2011, roughly 24.1% of the working population was suffering from mental health problems.

The cost of mental illness to society is tremendous. Studies have measured the overall cost of mental illness to the Canadian economy to be well over $50 billion per year. The economic impact on the labour market is just as concerning. For instance, the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) estimated that the annual impact on productivity was over $6.4 billion in 2011 alone, rising to $16 billion by 2041.4 The current cumulative 30-year productivity impact is estimated at $198 billion. Mental illness also affects Canadians in all aspects of their lives, whether it is their personal relationships, their families, their ability to work or study, or even their physical health.

Mental illness affects all Canadians, regardless of their age, and not just those of the working age population. In fact, most people suffering from mental health issues report having developed symptoms before adulthood. In this paper, we will see that youth are particularly vulnerable to mental health problems and illness. We focus our attention on a specific group of young Canadians that are especially exposed to leading determinants of mental illness: youth attending post-secondary education. On a daily basis, post-secondary students experience elevated stress levels, financial difficulties, drug and alcohol-related issues, social pressures, and eating disorders, among other factors known to affect mental health.

This paper explores the role that the federal government plays with respect to mental health policy in the post-secondary education (PSE) sector. Generally, health is thought to be a matter of provincial jurisdiction, but the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) believes that the federal government is an important actor that can make a real impact for young Canadians. As the MHCC explains: “The organization and delivery of health and other services are largely the responsibility of the provinces and territories, but there are many areas in which the federal government has an important role and where pan-Canadian initiatives could help all jurisdictions to improve mental health-related outcomes.”

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We will thus take a closer look at the scope of the federal government’s involvement in this sector. However, keeping in mind that most of the work on the ground is done through the provinces, we seek to provide a broader perspective on policy solutions at the federal level. This does not serve as an extensive guide, strategy, or complete framework for the federal government. Rather, this policy paper offers a basis for federal government involvement in improving the mental health of post-secondary students in Canada.

This policy paper should be viewed as complementary to the strategies and frameworks assembled by various experts inside and outside of the PSE sector. Here, we think of MHCC’s national mental health strategy Changing Directions/ Changing Lives, the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services’ framework Post-Secondary Student Mental Health: A Guide to a Systemic Approach, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada’s (AUCC) guide for Canadian universities Mental health: A guide and checklist for presidents, as well as other documents that focus on provincial contexts, like the College Student Alliance’s (CSA) policy paper Mental Health in Ontario’s Post-Secondary Education System. These works focus on specific strategic directions at the institutional level, internal structures, community capacity, campus engagement, crisis management, peer support, student involvement, underrepresented groups, as well as other important, detailed, components overseen by PSE institutions.

This paper mainly addresses five areas of concern regarding mental health and mental illness in the PSE sector:

  1. The lack of cohesion and collaboration at the Pan-Canadian level
  2. Stigma associated with mental illness
  3. Insufficiencies in national data collection on mental health
  4. Lack of funding in the sector
  5. The lack of financial support for affected Canada student loan recipients

We address a few key areas whereby the federal government could have a significant impact on improving mental health for youth at the PSE level.