Mental health training not mandatory at U of G, other Ontario universities

The University of Guelph does not have mandatory mental health training for faculty and staff, but instead relies on an optional "training framework" for professors and staff to learn how to support students with mental health issues.

298 U of G faculty took suicide alertness training in the fall of 2017, only 14 took Mental Health First Aid

The University of Guelph does not have mandatory mental health training for faculty and staff. (Google StreetView)

The University of Guelph does not have mandatory mental health training for faculty and staff, but instead relies on an optional "training framework" for professors and staff to learn how to support students with mental health issues.

"We have a training framework, which includes a number of pieces," said Brenda Whiteside, the associate vice president of student affairs at the University of Guelph.

The framework includes five levels. 

Unlike some workplace training like Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System​ (WHIMIS) or the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) compliance training, the mental health framework at the university is not mandatory.

The University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University also offer a range courses for faculty aimed to promote a culture of inclusion. The online courses include subjects like mental health, sexual orientation and diversity. 

Neither university's courses are mandatory. 

Funded

In a data report obtained by CBC News, in the fall 2017 semester only 14 faculty members at Guelph completed Mental Health First Aid, the fourth level of the framework, which focuses on anxiety and other common mental health issues that are increasingly prominent at universities.

​There are approximately 800 full-time faculty, and 3,500 total staff currently employed by the University of Guelph.

Since 2012, Ontario has invested $30 million to improve mental health supports and services for Ontario's post-secondary students, according to Tanya Blazina, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Advanced Labour.

Up to $1 million of the ministry's annual mental health funding gets allocated to support select mental health projects.

In 2015-2016 the University of Guelph was granted $200,000.

And while the provincial government provides funding, Blazina said "in Ontario, each university is responsible for determining its own academic and operational standards," which include qualifications and training for its faculty and staff.

May be others

Whiteside said the figures in the report do not reflect the total staff trained, as faculty who took training in previous years would not typically take the training again.

"I see faculty increasingly talking about mental health and making sure they are doing the right thing," said Whiteside.

She also said staff are seeing an increasing level of struggling students and talking about how they can support them.

This CBC investigation comes after a University of Guelph professor was put on a leave of absence after students allege he mocked and humiliated a studentwith severe anxiety in a class of almost 600 people.

​'Staff will only do things if paid for it'

Alim Nathaoo, a former computerized note taker at Conestoga College, told CBC News he thinks mental health training should be mandatory. 

He said when he was hired to assist students with disabilities at the school he only had a two-hour orientation and received a handout on how to deal with deaf and hard to hear students.

"I was not as equipped with mental health training as I should have been," said Nathoo.

He said they were not given safeTALK or any mental health training, but said he took some courses, like safeTALK, anyway. Nathoo said he was not paid for the time he took to educate himself for the position.

"What needs to happen is we need to have more mandatory training for students and staff," said Nathoo. "Most note takers and accessibility staff will only do things if paid for it." 

The training framework

The first level of the framework at the University of Guelph is what Whiteside calls "More Feet on the Ground," which is an online course that is emailed to all faculty and staff.

"It's a course which talks about mental health, what it looks like what (staff) might experience, how to support students with mental health etc," she said in an interview with CBC News.

"It's an option, it's sent every fall but it's not a mandatory training."

The second level of training is "Beyond the Books," which is face to face training that provides general information on the prevalence of mental challenges and illness.

The framework says the level two training will help staff identify signs of troubling behaviour and give them skills to engage with students.

Level 1More Feet on the Ground: An educational website on how to recognize, respond and refer students experiencing mental health issues on campus.
Level 2Beyond the Books: Face to face session that provides participants with general information on the prevalence of mental challenges and illness. It will then help participants to identify signs of troubling behaviour and give them skills to engage in a preliminary discussion to determine if referral to a professional is necessary. 
Level 3safeTALK: An alertness training that prepares anyone, regardless of prior experience or training, to become a suicide-alert helper. 
Level 4Mental Health First Aid: Focuses on the four most common mental health disorders including substance related, mood related, anxiety and trauma related, and psychotic disorders. Participants are well prepared to interact confidently about mental health with their family, friends, communities, and workplaces.

Level 5ASIST: Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training teaches participants to recognize when someone may have thoughts of suicide and work with them to create a plan that will support their immediate safety.

The face to face training is also not mandatory.

In the fall 2017 semester 201 staff completed face-to-face training, according to the data report.​

School under fire

Whiteside said the training is rolled out depending on the needs of the departments.

"For some people, a particular interest may have been suicide training, so we had safeTALK training," said Whiteside. "Others may want to talk about accommodation for students with disabilities, so we would go into those departments and talk about what accommodation looks like."

Following the 2016-2017 school year, the university had come under fire in the wake of four student suicides. In the fall 2017 semester, nearly 300 faculty members took suicide alertness training to better support students.

The report said 298 faculty members took the safeTALK training. The figure, however, does not include the department chairs and senior administrators who took the training.

Whiteside said the more involved with the day-to-day interaction with students the more training faculty will get.

For example a residence life staff member would be required to do more face-to-face training and suicide alertness. A residence manager, who is more heavily involved, would have to go up to level four training of MHFA.

The framework suggests that professors, who may only interact with students for an hour a week, will only receive a high level of mental health training is they choose to partake in it