University left out as other universities receive millions in mental health grants

Mount Royal University administration is putting a priority on student mental health, despite not receiving any grants from the provincial government to expand mental health services within the school.

The universities of Calgary, Alberta and Lethbridge each received $3 million from Alberta Health in January to fund mental health and addictions services.

An additional $1.5 million was given to the Alberta Students’ Executive Council to distribute to the rest of the 23 post-secondary institutions in Alberta over the next three years to fund mental health services.

But Mount Royal received none of this funding, according to university president David Docherty.

Without provincial help

Docherty confirmed that MRU did not receive any separate funding from the province for mental health and addictions services. Funding for the MRU Wellness Services – $1.7 million for 2012-2013 – comes out of the university’s budget, which is facing a $13.94 million deficit for 2013-2014.Kristal Hoff shares her thoughts on what MRU can do to improve mental health on campus. While experiencing budget shortfalls, MRU continues to focus on mental health issues.

Photo by Cameron Perrier

“Just because the province isn’t going to support us to the same tune that they’re supporting the other university in Calgary doesn’t mean we don’t take this seriously,” Docherty said.

Brian Flemming, the vice president of student affairs and campus life who oversees MRU’s Wellness Services, said he wasn’t aware that Alberta Health funding existed for university mental health services before the grants were announced

Nonetheless, Flemming said that mental health is a priority for MRU, and that he plans to work with Alberta Health to reach a solution.

“Even though there’s no grant out there, we’re going to approach Alberta Health with a proposal,” he said, noting that this will happen within the next two months.

Why was MRU not funded?

Flemming said that when he challenged Alberta Health in their reasoning for leaving MRU out of the funding, officials were “defensive,” but “vague” in their reasoning.

When asked by the Journal why MRU was left out of post-secondary health funding, John Muir, spokesperson for Alberta Health, first maintained that the reasoning behind giving the other three universities $3 million each was based on their populations.

“These three universities have a larger population base. So what we’re going to be doing in these three universities is that they’re going to be implementing programs and services we’ll take lessons from,” he said.

According to their most recent annual reports, U of C has in total approximately 31,327 students, U of A has 38,774 students in total, and U of L has 8,359 students in total.

However, MRU’s student base clearly tops U of L’s population, with a total of 13,571 full and part-time credit students currently enrolled.

When asked specifically about these figures and how U of L could be considered to have a larger population base than Mount Royal, Muir asked for a day to research the question. He later said that U of L, U of A and U of C are also Comprehensive Educational Research Institutions, meaning these schools have research facilities that other post-secondaries “might not have,” Muir said.

Elaine Danelesko (left), Mirjam Knapik and Kristal Hoff discuss recommendations for mental health at MRU. The university received no mental health grants from Alberta Health, compared to U of L, U of C and U of A, which each received $3 million in funding for mental health and addictions services.

Photo by Cameron Perrier“They’ll be able to research the effects of a program they put in, and allow them to test and validate their research findings and then put them into an appropriate mental health program that could be replicated at post secondary institutions across the province,” he said, noting that the research capability was a key aspect in receiving the funding.

Muir said that Alberta Health hopes to take these lessons and later implement them “at any institution regardless of their size.”

He also said that the funding was part of a $25-million plan provincial mental health projects. The remaining $14.5-million will be allocated for various projects unrelated to post-secondaries.

While MRU’s 2013-2014 Wellness Services budget has yet to be finalized and the university has not yet announced all expected cuts to student services, Flemming did say that in terms of mental health, money will be rerouted from other areas, resulting in more for that area.

Recommended improvements

Meanwhile, the President’s Task Force met this month to review a draft report on mental health recommendations compiled following a year and a half of meetings in the MRU community.

The report contains recommendations for MRU President Docherty as to where Mount Royal could improve resources for students needing mental health services.

“I think what we do hope to achieve is first of all build a kind of community where anyone is not afraid to say ‘I need a little support in dealing with some issues here,’” Docherty said.

Kandi McElary, MRU Wellness Services director, said, “I think Mount Royal already is a community that cares very, very much to help facilitate where we’ve got pockets of excellence where there are great things going on.”

“Just because the province isn’t going to support us to the same tune that they’re supporting the other university in Calgary doesn’t mean we don’t take this seriously.”

– David Docherty
  MRU president

The report, which grew out of the 2011 Student Mental Health Strategy conference, evaluated many aspects of MRU such as policies, classroom conduct, crisis management and access to services in terms of mental health. It also suggested a need for increased mental health services on campus based on a 2010 survey that compared MRU students to a reference group of American post-secondary schools.

MRU consistently recorded higher percentages compared to the reference groups on factors that could affect academic performance – such as anxiety, depression, stress, drug and alcohol abuse, sleeping difficulties, ADHD, and learning disabilities.

“As we approach this challenge, can we be repurposing, reorganizing in such a way to make sure that we’re responding to some of the recommendations,” McElary said.

The report suggests improvements particularly in student awareness of services. Docherty emphasized the importance of providing services before a situation reaches a crisis point.

“Support is there,” he said, expressing that people should not be afraid to access services, so they don’t get to a position of crisis.

Looking to the future

Despite the university’s financial setbacks, Docherty remains positive about MRU’s efforts to provide the best services to students.

“The best way we can do that is to make sure students distinguish between good challenges and those that are actually related to mental health, and that’s part of what this whole process is about,” he said.

Docherty said that identifying the strengths and weaknesses of mental health services on campus is the first step of the process, adding that involvement from everyone – faculty, staff and students – would set the stage for a broader impact.

“We want students in some way to feel a little pressure about doing their work,” he said. “What we don’t want is to feel so much pressure that it’s impacting their ability to function and we don’t want that to translate in to choices that might not be healthy for them,” he said.

cperrier@cjournal.ca

Editor’s note: Due to the nature of this article, it’s important we indicate that the Calgary Journal is produced and overseen by Mount Royal University students and faculty.