Ontario is investing an additional $3.25 million toward mental health initiatives for college and university students this year due to the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, ministers announced Tuesday during national mental illness awareness week.
“The regular everyday stresses on students are hard enough as it is and now we add COVID to the mix,” Ontario Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano said at a virtual press conference.
Students may be away from loved ones, or having difficulty adjusting to online learning, he said.
“This is something that we know we need to do more on,” Romano said. “We know we need to deliver more for our students.”
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Tuesday’s announcement is an increase of $3.25 million on top of the $16 million the province invested in post-secondary mental health services last year, for a total of $19.25 million this year. It will go toward leveraging existing community-based mental health supports, providing support to Ontario’s nine Indigenous institutes and giving more funding to Kids Help Phone.
Katherine Hay, president and CEO of Kids Help Phone, said there is an uptick in the volume of people reaching out to their counsellors when on-campus services are closed, such as in the middle of the night or during holiday seasons.
“So during this really tumultuous and uncertain time, with a lot of services unavailable, virtual care, the type of care we deliver, is that much more important,” she said, adding that the increased funding announced today will help meet the increasing need for support.
The money will also put $4.45 million into a grant for Ontario colleges and universities “to offset the costs of hiring front-line, campus-based mental health workers.”
Additionally, the province is providing one-time funding of $250,000 to launch an online mental health app called Get-A-head.
Over half of Canadian students, 51.6 per cent, reported feeling depressed in the 2019 National College Health Assessment Canadian student survey. That survey also found 68.9 per cent of students experienced anxiety, and 10.1 per cent of students had seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months.
“We recognize that over the last several years, the mental health needs of post secondary students have increased dramatically in the province of Ontario. This has only been compounded by the COVID-19 outbreak,” Michael Tibollo, Ontario’s associate minister of mental health and addictions, said at the press conference.
“I really believe that this increase in funding is going to help fill the gaps in the mental health services our students are receiving,” he said.
In September 2019, a student at the University of Toronto died by suicide on campus. It was the third death in that building in two years, the university’s student newspaper The Varsity reported. Students told CTV News and CBC that there are long wait times to get an appointment with an on-campus counsellor.
Romano said he hopes that today’s funding announcement will help reduce wait times for counselling on campuses.
Tuesday’s announcement follows $14.75 million in additional funding earmarked in September for supporting front-line workers and Indigenous communities. The province is also working on expanding its structured psychotherapy program to more locations.
Chris Glover, the NDP’s critic for colleges and universities said in a statement that any money put toward student mental health is welcome “but the Ford government’s announcement today isn’t anywhere near enough.”
He pointed to the government’s past slashing of $330 million in planned mental health funding.
“Students have gone through so much this year - losing summer job opportunities and struggling to keep up with tuition,” Glover said. “But instead of really investing in their mental health the way Ontario should be, Doug Ford continues to pinch pennies.”
If you or someone you know needs help in Canada, contact Crisis Services Canada at their website or by calling 1-833-456-4566. You can also find links and numbers to 24-hour suicide crisis lines in your province or territory here. This guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health outlines how to talk about suicide with someone you’re worried about.