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New national student standard aims to bolster mental wellness in post-secondary institutions

Attending college or university can be an exciting period of growth, exploration, and independence — but it can also be a time of tremendous pressure and stress. Well before the onset of the pandemic, the 2019 National College Health Assessment found that more than half of post-secondary students in Canada felt so depressed it was difficult to function, and nearly 70 per cent felt overwhelming anxiety.

To support post-secondary institutions in promoting positive mental health outcomes on and off campus, the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), in collaboration with CSA Group, have created the National Standard of Canada: Mental Health and Well-Being for Post-Secondary Students.

This new standard — the first of its kind in the world — is a set of voluntary guidelines developed in consultation with diverse stakeholders, including students, administrators, service providers, and people with lived and living experience of mental illness. Its goal is to provide a consistent, evidence-based framework schools can use to enhance existing mental health strategies or develop new ones.

“While it’s too soon to understand the full impact COVID-19 will have on students’ mental health, we know the pandemic has added a layer of complexity,” said Sandra Koppert, the MHCC’s director of Mental Health Advancement. “Implementing this new standard is a chance for post-secondary institutions to reinforce their commitment to student mental wellness, both now and after the pandemic.”

To help schools build momentum, the MHCC has launched a starter kit for its new standard, which includes a variety of resources, next-steps, and key considerations to support their alignment with the framework.

“Given the diversity of these institutions, we can’t have a one-size-fits-all solution,” said MHCC president and CEO Louise Bradley, who emphasized that “the framework isn’t dissimilar to the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, which needed to work ‘for shops on Main Street and banks on Bay Street.’ For colleges and universities, their size, geographic location, and areas of specialty — not to mention their vision and values — will all determine how they wish to tailor their actions.” 

Koppert agrees that the customized approach to improvement is what sets the new standard apart. “Many schools have great mental health initiatives already in place, but as circumstances change, the needs of students change with them. This standard provides a framework that helps schools adapt and expand their programs to ensure they’re as effective as possible.”

“Consider the COVID reality,” added Bradley. “With courses shifting online, instructors may become the primary point of contact for many students. So it’s more important than ever to equip them with tools that can help them recognize the signs of mental distress and support their students effectively. To that end, some institutions may choose mental health training for faculty, which directly aligns with the evidence-based recommendations in the standard.”

For Ed Mantler, the MHCC’s vice-president of Programs and Priorities, “this new standard helps institutions see that many aspects of their policies can be seen through a mental health lens. From accommodation policies to diversity and inclusion efforts to subsidies and grants, all impact mental health and need to be understood as such.”

Research shows that students who get the mental health support they need are more likely to succeed in their classes and graduate.

But as Bradley points out, the benefit of supporting student mental health goes beyond the bell curve.

“Understanding mental health and wellness, knowing when and how to seek help, and breaking down stigma are lessons that will prepare students well for the rest of their lives. To me, that spells success.”

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