Mental health supports needed to combat stigma, well-being manager says

By: Tessa Adamski

Three in four post-secondary students reported experiencing mental health challenges during their studies in 2022, according to a survey by the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA). 

Students in the survey said wait times, lack of awareness of support services, mental health stigma and concerns about confidentiality are barriers to accessing mental health services on campus. 

Paige McNabb, a Business Administration student at Red River College Polytechnic, said she struggles to take care of her mental health while working four shifts per week and balancing school full-time. 

She said if she misses a day of classes it’s because she’s feeling tired. 

“I just need the day to decompress,” McNabb says. “It can be challenging if you’re having a hard time, you feel like you are missing a lot of class and you can’t keep up with it.”

McNabb said she thinks most instructors are more understanding of students who disclose feeling physically sick as opposed to experiencing issues regarding their mental health. 

When she needs to take a ‘mental health day,’ she feels obligated to tell her instructors she’s feeling sick.

“You should be able to say, ‘I am having a mental health day and I need to take the day to relax,’” said McNabb.

Paige McNabb browses the Exchange District Campus on Monday, March 6, 2023. She said it’s important to de-stigmatize mental health and advocate for students in post-secondary education. (Tessa Adamski)

Due to the stigmatization of mental health issues, Breanna Sawatzky, campus well-being manager at RRC Polytech, said there is often discretion around disclosing mental illness to an employer or school instructor.

“When people are struggling, they don’t need to face judgment. They need to be received with empathy and support,” said Sawatzky. 

It may be challenging for students to have these discussions without the fear of jeopardizing their working relationships or reputation, she said. 

Rates of student absenteeism in post-secondary education are difficult to measure, and Sawatzky said she does not have access to this information at the college. 

RRC Polytech developed the Healthy Minds Healthy College charter, which encourages having open conversations about mental health to reduce stigma and provide community support. 

Sawatzky said the college can support students by offering Mental Health First Aid training to instructors and staff members, sharing stories of people with lived experiences to increase empathy, and instilling policies that are not stigmatizing or discriminatory. 

Students with various types of disabilities, including mental health diagnoses, can receive accommodations at student accessibility services, removing any barriers to their education, she said.

“An accessibility specialist would work with them to determine what the instructor needs to know and what can be kept private or confidential because not everyone always has the right to know all of our health details,” said Sawatzky. 

She said these factors contribute to a larger societal shift of seeing mental health as health, and not stigmatizing it as weakness or personal failure.