by Rehnuma Islam
While your Fitbit counts the number of steps to reach a goal, the University of Toronto is taking steps towards improving students’ mental health. The question is how many steps will it take to get there? In the past year, the university has been under scrutiny after a series of students died by suicide, sparking an outcry for improved mental health services. In an interview with Global News, U of T’s President Meric Gertler explained that more students are seeking support from mental health services.1 But importantly, the rate of suicide remains stagnant despite a three-million-dollar investment into mental health resources over the past two years. These frustrations were echoed by student groups demanding sweeping changes to curb suicide rates. In response, the university has since met with students to generate a mental health report to outline the needs of students and where improvements can be made.
There are 5 ways U of T is addressing the needs of its students:
- Easier tri-campus wide mental health service integration with support from CAMH
- Drop-in counselling at Robarts Library during final exam session
- A healthy lab initiative led by Dr. Reinhart Reithmeier to improve laboratory atmosphere and identify best practices for managing labs
- Raising the need for support from government funding
- My Student Support Program (My SSP)
As part of the mental health initiatives, the My SSP program was introduced to international students in March 2019 and domestic students later in 2019. The program is an external third-party app managed by the company Morneau Shepell, giving students access to professional counsellors around the clock. The program has been adopted across many universities within Canada and the US, prior to its adoption at U of T. The idea is to increase the number and ways in which mental health services reach students. The program is touted to be private, anonymous, available in 146 languages, accessible 24/7, and at no additional cost to students.2
In an interview with U of T News, Vice-Provost Sandy Welsh said students deemed the program a great success at other institutions. However, when we asked the UofT media relations about the app’s performance at U of T, the response was, “we do not have data available on the My SSP app”. Perhaps it is too early to assess the benefits of the program at U of T, but one student’s response suggests that the anonymity of the individual seeking service and their 24/7 support makes this program an essential mental health service to students. The stigma around mental health is slowly lifting. However, until conversations surrounding mental health become the norm, the apps’ ability to allow users to stay anonymous gives it an edge.
… the anonymity of the individual seeking service and their 24/7 support makes this program an essential mental health service to students
The app’s benefits can extend even further by integrating an everyday wellness assessment so that individuals can assess their own progression of mental wellness. There are already mental wellness tips within the app which can help to curb negative thought cycles. Perhaps expanding their service to include behaviour therapy can allow individuals to modify negative thoughts by introducing positive ones.
As a society we need to look at the underlying causes of mental health issues. The UK has appointed a loneliness minister as a result of pressing concerns over a report that nine million of its inhabitants felt lonely.3 Canada should consider this as one in five Canadians identify as feeling lonely.4 Many international students leave their family and friends to face a new environment alone. Domestic students, regardless of their social setting, can also experience loneliness. Even music artist, Lauv, wrote in his song “modern loneliness, we’re never alone but always depressed”. Loneliness is felt by everyone at some point in time, however chronic feelings of loneliness can be a comorbidity for other psychological and physical health risks, such as depression5. According to one paper, loneliness serves to remind us to re-establish meaningful social connections because evolutionarily humans survived better in groups6.
Even music artist, Lauv, wrote in his song ‘modern loneliness, we’re never alone but always depressed’.
What can contribute to this increasing feeling of loneliness? No one knows exactly, but research suggests it could be from multiple contributors, such as being in a new social environment which can lead to low quality of social relationships or sleep deprivation.7,8 Many studies have also linked mental health with increased risk for detriment to physical health and increased mortality.,9,10 Therefore, the responsibility lies with both the university and government to optimally understand and implement effective mental health policies and services.
What remains to be seen is whether the current mental health initiatives lead to real results in student’s lives. The university should seek to continually assess that students’ needs are being meet and bring mental health to the attention of the government. The mental health initiatives set after 2019 seems to be a start in the right direction, because good mental health is important not only at the individual level, but for the community as a whole.
- Friesen, Joe. “University of Toronto Installs Safety Barriers after Third Student Suicide in 18 Months.” The Globe and Mail, 2 Oct. 2019, www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-university-of-toronto-installs-safety-barriers-after-third-student/.
- Kalvapalle, Rahul. “U Of T Rolls out on-Demand My SSP Counselling Service to All Students.” University of Toronto News, 2020, www.utoronto.ca/news/u-t-rolls-out-demand-my-ssp-counselling-service-all-students.
- John, Tara. “Meet Tracey Crouch, Britain’s Minister for Loneliness.” Time, Time, 25 Apr. 2018, time.com/5248016/tracey-crouch-uk-loneliness-minister/.
- Stroh , Perlita. “Feeling Lonely? It Could Be Doing You Physical Harm | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 19 Jan. 2019, www.cbc.ca/news/health/national-dealing-with-loneliness-1.4828017.
- Erzen E, Çikrikci Ö. The effect of loneliness on depression: A meta-analysis. Int J Soc Psychiatry. 2018 Aug;64(5):427-435.
- Masi, M. et al. A Meta-Analysis of Interventions to Reduce Loneliness. Pers Soc Psychol Rev. 2011 Aug; 15(3)
- Walker, M.P. and Simon B. Sleep loss causes social withdrawal and loneliness. Nat Commun. 2018 Aug 14;9(1):3146.
- Khaja, Mariyam. “Students Are Lonelier than Ever.” Macleans.ca, 30 Oct. 2019, http://www.macleans.ca/education/students-are-lonelier-than-ever/.
- Xia, N. and Li H. Loneliness, Social Isolation, and Cardiovascular Health. Antioxid Redox Signal. 2018 Mar 20; 28(9): 837–851.Malcolm, Martin et al. Loneliness and social isolation causal association with health-related lifestyle risk in older adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis protocol. Systematic reviews vol. 8,1 48. 2019.
- Malcolm, Martin et al. Loneliness and social isolation causal association with health-related lifestyle risk in older adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis protocol. Systematic reviews vol. 8,1 48. 2019.