Learning from northern perspectives on student mental health

When the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) — together with our partners, Bell Let’s Talk, The Rossy Foundation, the RBC Foundation, and Health Canada — set out to champion the development of a National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety of Post-Secondary Students, in collaboration with the standards development organization CSA Group, we knew it had to reflect a mosaic of diverse experience. Acquiring a post-secondary education can be exciting, transformative, and demanding. But with 50 per cent of students using campus mental health services, we also see that it can be a time of susceptibility to mental health problems or illnesses.

“There are two million post-secondary students in Canada,” said Ed Mantler, the MHCC’s vice-president of programs and priorities. “So there’s going to be two million perspectives on what we need to include in the standard. We’re trying to represent that kaleidoscope of experience as closely as we can.”

On April 26, the MHCC held a Northern Perspectives event at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in Whitehorse, Yukon. “Through our Dialogue in a Box initiative, students, educators, and administrators were giving us a lot of great feedback,” explained Sandra Koppert, the MHCC’s director of programs and priorities. “While we were funnelling that information back to the CSA Group Technical Committee, whose members are developing the technical content for the standard, our blueprint still had a gaping hole without a thorough assessment of the northern student experience.” To fill that gap, Koppert and her team arranged a day of learning dedicated to the needs of students in the North. The reaction to the day’s agenda was nothing short of extraordinary.

Technical Committee member Wally Rude, who is also registrar and dean of enrolment services at Yukon College, believes the event will have a far-reaching impact. “The event was stellar. It was well planned, well attended, and it fostered a hospitable atmosphere. The participants offered critical insights on the challenges and opportunities of supporting student well-being in the North,” he said. “It was an honour and privilege to participate in the event along with a number of colleagues and students from Yukon College. Above all, it’s the student-centric approach that will truly transform the mental wellness landscape in post-secondary institutions across the country.”

Koppert agreed. “We spent the day looking to understand — from a northern perspective — what works to promote mental health, what mental health barriers students face, and what post-secondary schools can do to support them. Optimizing the mental wellness of the participants was also at the heart of our day of learning.” The Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre provided a peaceful setting, with the Yukon River as a meditative backdrop to the day’s activities. The MHCC also engaged a support person from the Canadian Mental Health Association (Yukon), who was on site to provide assistance when needed.

“It was an amazing and enlightening experience,” said student participant Demi Dorn, treasurer of the Yukon College Student Union. “This work is extremely important because [mental health] affects everyone.”

The day included a student panel, where courageous post-secondary students living in the North shared their experiences of accessing mental health supports on and off campus.

“What stuck with me is that student mental health can’t happen in isolation,” said Paige Savard, a Yukon College student who attended the event. “For student mental health to be addressed, staff mental health must be supported as well.”

Beyond students, the event also attracted representatives from government, including Jukipa Kotierk, a wellness program specialist with the Nunavut Department of Health in Iqaluit. “As an Inuk and a resident of Nunavut, I was thrilled to attend. It’s paramount to be inclusive of cultural differences and limit barriers that may leave marginalized groups with subpar standards of wellness.”

With an inspiring performance by Yukon’s own Leaping Feats Creative Danceworks, opening and closing prayers led by Kwanlin Dün First Nation Councillor, Sean Smith, and Ta’an Kwäch'än Elders Council member Julia Broeren, the day was an exceptional experience for all who attended.

“There’s something really special about creating a space for honest discussion,” said Koppert. “We know these conversations are going to be honoured because the ideas are going to shape a national benchmark for better mental health services on campus. We have a responsibility to build bridges to communities of students who may be overlooked.”

As Kotierk so eloquently put it, “There is a difference between creating a space that is welcome to all, as opposed to a space carved out specifically with a community in mind. As an Inuk, I would like to see culturally relevant wellness supports like this throughout all of Canada.”