‘We’re here for you’: How U of T is supporting students’ mental health – now and in the future

students stand outside the Health and Wellness Centre at UTSC
(Photo by Matthew Dochstader)

Students studying at the University of Toronto this fall have access to an expanded suite of mental health services and supports – with a focus on helping them successfully navigate their post-secondary journeys and equipping them with critical life skills.

From eliminating wait times for mental health appointments at student health centres to streamlining access to treatment at hospitals and renovating student health and wellness spaces, the sweeping changes come as U of T implements an innovative stepped-care model of mental health service delivery that helps students get the help they need sooner and in a manner that caters to their individual needs.

Sandy Welsh, U of T’s vice-provost, students, says it is important that the revitalization of mental health service delivery occurred in time for U of T’s biggest back-to-school season ever this fall.

“It is wonderful to see students on campus and so happy to be back, and it’s very important for students to be back to in-person learning,” Welsh says. “At the same time, we also know that that the pandemic has been hard on students.

“That’s why our student health centres have worked really hard over the past several months to be ready for the return of students to campus; to be able to see them whenever they need; and to support students with their mental health needs.”

A crucial area of progress: the availability of same-day mental health consultations at student health centres across the three campuses, implemented in fall 2021.

To support this rapid access to consultations and referrals, U of T is hiring wellness navigator advisers, says Christina Bartha, U of T’s inaugural senior executive director, student mental health systems, policy and strategy, “to help with the flow of students coming through the tri-campus student health centres, optimize our ability to see students the same day and get them the right resources at the right time.”

On the St. George campus, students with more urgent or complex mental health care needs will also have access to mental health navigators who can help bridge support services between U of T and CAMH and other hospitals.

“Navigators will facilitate and support students who have experienced a crisis in accessing the care they need and will assist them as they navigate their way back to the university environment,” Bartha says.

For students who prefer to make their first contact with mental health services online, the new Student Mental Health Resource serves as a comprehensive place to access the wealth of resources available across the university. As well, students can use the Navi mental health wayfinder to navigate resources and access the supports they need.

Students can also talk to a counsellor 24/7 through MySSP, which provides immediate support over the phone in 35 languages and in 146 languages on an ongoing basis.

Meanwhile, U of T has also worked to renovate and expand health and wellness spaces across its three campuses.

On the St. George campus, the Koffler Student Services Centre is undergoing a modernization effort that is expected to take two and a half years. In the interim, the campus’s Health & Wellness Centre is operating out of 700 Bay Street.

At U of T Scarborough, the new Instructional Centre 2 on the north side of campus will have an entire floor dedicated to the UTSC Health & Wellness Centre, which serves as a hub for student supports.

At U of T Mississauga, the Health & Counselling Centre at the William G. Davis Building has undergone a renovation of its counselling and medical suites.

The transformative changes are all part of the university’s response to the recommendations of the Presidential and Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health, which delivered a report on the subject just prior to the pandemic.

Key to the overall effort is approaching student health and wellness through a holistic lens that takes a long view on development.

That includes recognizing that young people are at higher risk of facing a mental health challenge – and that the nearly two-and-half-year-old pandemic has taken a toll on everyone.

“A comprehensive, whole-health approach to supporting students in their academic success as well as their enjoyment of campus life is really important,” says Bartha, who joined U of T from the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), where she was executive director of the Brain and Mental Health Program.

“But it’s also about supporting students now to develop their individual skills and strengths to be better prepared for the challenges of the future and life beyond university.”

One of the task force’s key recommendations was to improve co-ordination at student health centres across the three campuses – which is why U of T hired Bartha, an accomplished mental health-care leader who led several innovative and complex strategic initiatives at SickKids as well as the Centre for Addiction and Mental (CAMH).

Bartha, who assumed the role in August, is overseeing the implementation of recommendations made by the task force, providing guidance to develop and instil best practices for student mental health and promoting a culture of care across the university.

“I feel privileged to have joined U of T at a time when there is such a deep sense of caring for students’ mental health,” Bartha said. “I’ve been hugely impressed by the commitment to achieving a mental health vision for the university, and I see that commitment in every conversation that I’ve had.

“Significant progress has been made, but more needs to follow. We still have a lot of work to do – but I can say that U of T cares deeply about this issue, and we will continue to work hard to address the recommendations that have come forward.”

Bartha says the wide range of efforts to boost mental health and wellness supports is designed to help students find fulfilment and achieve success at university while also equipping them with critical skills and resources they can draw on throughout their adult lives.

“There’s academic learning, there’s social and experiential learning, and there’s also health learning – all of these learnings contribute to a student’s capacity to move on to the next stage of their development successfully,” Bartha said. “Mental health intervention and support is about supporting individuals in developing the internal skills to tackle the obstacles that life will inevitably present us with.

“That is a big part of what is being embedded in the mental health continuum of care at all three campuses.”

For her part, Welsh says students shouldn’t hesitate to seek out mental health supports – whether by accessing digital mental health tools, scheduling an appointment at a student health centre or taking advantage of the wide range of supportive programming offered.

“We want all our students to know that we’re here to support their mental health needs. If you’re experiencing a mental health issue – it doesn’t matter what it is – don’t minimize it,” Welsh says.

“Please reach out. Come and see us. We’re here for you and our doors are open to you.”