Dialogue in a Box aims to capture students’ concerns about mental health

Two out of three post-secondary students in Canada say stress negatively affects their studies. Half have used campus mental health services — 10 per cent in crisis situations — and more than a quarter have experienced thoughts of suicide. At the same time, young people are more engaged with mental health than ever before. According to research conducted by Nielsen in October 2017, 87 per cent of young people say they are more aware of mental health issues than they were five years ago.

“Post-secondary education is an exciting time,” said Louise Bradley, president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC). “But we also know that getting a post-secondary education isn’t without challenges. And depending on who you talk to, these challenges can be very different. For some, it’s new-found independence, financial strain, or exposure to substance misuse. For others — like mature students — it may be juggling parenthood and the rigours of academia. For exchange students, it could be culture shock.”

McGill student Myriam Lecousy, member of the MHCC’s Youth Council, knows this first-hand. “As young people, we have a lot on our plates. Factors such as adapting to a new environment, creating a new circle of friends, experiencing financial difficulties, or even being focused on getting good grades can make life very complicated.”

To capture these diverse needs, the MHCC has just created a Dialogue in a Box toolkit to assist students who would like to contribute to the development of a new post-secondary mental health standard.

Working with the CSA Group, with funding from Bell Let’s Talk, The Rossy Foundation, and the RBC Foundation, the MHCC is leading the creation of the Standard for Psychological Health and Safety of Post-Secondary Students — a framework that will include mental health awareness, promotion, prevention, intervention, accommodation, and training.

“The success of the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace set the stage for this new initiative. We believe there is tremendous potential to improve the lives and academic success of Canada’s post-secondary students by taking a similar systematic approach,” said Mary Deacon, chair of Bell Let’s Talk.

“We recognize the importance of mental well-being on a young person’s ability to achieve success, and that success directly impacts the strength of our workplaces, schools, and communities,” said Valerie Chort, RBC vice-president of corporate citizenship. “Through our partnership with the MHCC, RBC Future Launch will provide mental health supports and services to help address barriers including the low recognition of early signs and symptoms of mental health struggles, a lack of peer support networks, and a disconnected system of care.”

Lecousy, who is a member of the executive advisory committee supporting the development of the post-secondary standard, echoes the importance of making those connections. “Knowing how and where to get mental health support on campus is really important because it’s where we spend so much of our time.”

“We want to get to the heart of what institutions are already doing really well and figure out where the gaps are,” said Sandra Koppert, the MHCC’s director of programs and priorities. “The more people who participate in open dialogues and send us their feedback, the broader the range of perspectives we’ll be able to incorporate to ensure inclusivity.”

The CSA Group has brought together a committee of experts who will distil the information gathered and draft the technical content. “We encourage everyone with a vested interest in the mental health of post-secondary students to use this really simple resource. Any standard is only as good as the content we receive.”

The Dialogue in a Box offers concrete, practical advice on how to set up and promote the discussion. The step-by-step guide not only covers the meeting logistics, like how to secure a venue and set an agenda, it also delves into participant engagement with suggestions for icebreakers and tips for facilitating a fruitful conversation. As well, the Dialogue in a Box includes practical checklists for venue set-up, sample e-vites, Safer Space Guidelines, and ready-to-print participant worksheets.

“We’ve put everything a person would need to host such a discussion in one place. It’s easy, free to download, and simple to follow,” said Koppert. “All perspectives need to be brought forward — from colleges and universities to CEGEPs and technical institutions. This is one dialogue we all need to have!”