British Columbia

Demand for mental health care growing at Canadian universities

A recent investigation shows that demand for mental health care at UBC and universities across Canada is growing, but some students say universities services aren't enough.

Investigation points to increasing need for mental health care for university students

Universities across Canada have experienced growing demand for mental health services, including the University of British Colombia. (Getty Images)

Demand for mental health care at universities across Canada, including UBC, is growing according to a recent investigation by the Toronto Star and Ryerson School of Journalism.

But some students say the university's services aren't enough.

Despite that, the report revealed that many Canadian universities have significantly increased mental health funding, although some are struggling to meet growing the demand. 

Cheryl Washburn, director of counselling services at UBC, said in an email that from the 2014-2015 school year to the 2015-2016 school year, funding for counselling services has gone up by over 30 per cent. 

She says more students are being referred to counselling, in part due to university campaigns aimed at decreasing the stigma of seeking help for such an illness.

"We would hypothesize that over time the stigma is decreasing, and it is enabling people to reach out to seek help," Washburn said.

While there have been complaints from students of long wait times, she says the demand is different throughout the year and students will be seen.

"Counselling wait times will vary depending upon demand," she said.  

Washburn said one of the reasons for the funding increases at UBC is the university initially lacked adequate funding for these services.

"We were very under-resourced for the size of our university," said Washburn.

UBC president Santa Ono has been open about his own struggles with depression as a student and his current interest in student mental health.

Students speak out

But despite UBC's investments in mental health care, some students said university services are not enough.

After first going to UBC counselling in 2014, student Ji Youn Kim said she had to wait two weeks to see someone and the student counsellor she was given was not experienced enough to help her.

"It was very obvious, it was by the book. It wasn't very useful," she said.

Later that school year, Kim attempted suicide three times. She survived, and when she came back to school later that month, she was able to see a counsellor that same day but realized she needed more advanced care than what UBC could offer.

​"One session was not enough to talk me through suicidal ideation, " said Kim. "My issues were a lot more complex for UBC counselling."

She chose to get counselling through the private system instead, where she could get more hands-on treatment. 

Ji Youn Kim, founder of The Tipping Point, says that university mental health services could not adequately help her. (Amber Leigh Photography)

But in April 2016, Kim decided to drop out of school completely. She poured her feelings into a blog post, talking about the stress of school and the shame of failing classes — and was met with hundreds of students reaching out with similar stories. 

"In the past year, I've has hundreds of messages of students sharing their stories with me. I've broken down crying, reading these messages," said Kim.

Kim has been back at UBC, not as a student but as an advocate for mental health. Her blog, The Tipping Point, has since grown into a student movement for preventative mental health care at UBC. 

"​UBC is one of the more progressive schools [regarding mental health] but it's really on a surface level of free tea and puppies. I wanted to talk about trauma, cultural identity, panic attacks, what its like to fail out of classes," said Kim.

Kim says that one of the biggest challenges to student mental health is the academic system which puts too much pressure on students and is inflexible to student learning and needs. 

"We could put all the money into counselling, but if we don't address the core, there's no point," she said.