With a shortage of counsellors, East Coast universities have to find a way to ensure anxious, stressed-out students get the mental health services they need, says the new co-ordinator of the services.

Students in the Atlantic region are in a different position from those in large urban areas, said Elizabeth Cawley, the regional mental health co-ordinator with the Association of Atlantic Universities.

'The fact that we've lost students to suicide is absolutely tragic, and now we need to move and make sure that doesn't happen again.' -  Elizabeth Cawley

At schools in more rural areas, students often don't have easy access to psychologists or the hospital system, she said.

"So we need to consider the needs of Atlantic students separately and not rely on models from bigger cities," Cawley said in an interview with Information Morning Moncton.

Cawley, who has a PhD in psychiatry from McGill University, said a large research study will be conducted at all 16 universities across Atlantic Canada to investigate what students need and how to better offer services.

It "absolutely urgent" to begin tackling student mental health, she said.

"The fact that we've lost students to suicide is absolutely tragic, and now we need to move and make sure that doesn't happen again."

Better online mental health services would be one way to help, Cawley said.

Her own research has focused on online strategies to help students looking for help at early stages of a problem, by helping to improve their mental health literacy or with self-assessments.

"There are things like information online self-help, interactive online self-help, psycho education, online resources to really try to facilitate access to care," she said. 

"Not just relying on the number of counsellors, because we know the number of counsellors is not sufficient at the moment."

Online peer support would be another useful tool, she said.

"We're really trying to figure out what is needed out here in Atlantic Canada," she said.

In recent years, anxiety, triggered by a lack of life skills and coping methods, has surpassed depression among student mental health problems, Cawley said.

"We know when students are emotionally unprepared, that leads to them being stressed, overwhelmed," she said.

Academia, relationships, dealing with finances for the first time, roommates, exams, dealing with sexuality all contribute to the pressures students feel.

Cawley said research has found that 87 per cent of first-year students said there was more emphasis on being academically ready than emotionally ready for university.

Cawley's appointment is the result of a partnership between the Medavie Health Foundation and the Atlantic Association of Universities.