Anxious. Uneasy. Restless. This is how some of those who work for publicly-funded institutions feel every time citizens go to the polls.

As Alberta heads into a provincial election next spring that could see a Jason Kenney-led UCP government takeover from the NDP, those advocating for mental health care spending are especially agitated.

Political pundit and Mount Royal University communications professor, David Taras, says there’s been a societal shift that has seen mental health emerge as a significant priority of the Notley government.

Word cloudThe top words in the 2016 “Advisory Panel of Post-Secondary Mental Health” final report are mental health and students. Health is mentioned in some form (i.e. “health,” or “healthy”) almost 400 times throughout the report. Graphic by Stephanie Hagenaars

But that narrative, he says, can quickly change with a new governing party.

“All of that can be overturned by a government that wants to cut 20 per cent across the board,” says Taras, adding that Alberta has seen sharp cuts like this in the past when Ralph Klein was leader of the Progressive Conservatives in the early ‘90s in an effort to erase the government’s deficit and debt.

A roller coaster for public institutions

The Alberta NDP has committed to injecting $25.8 million in new mental health funding to Alberta’s 26 post-secondary institutions over three years.

Mount Royal’s share is split over two phases, with $465,000 to be spent between August 2017 and March 2019. The second phase, $280,000, hasn’t arrived as MRU must apply for it prior to December 2018.

Counselling in numbersMirjam Knapik, Mount Royal Wellness Services counselling chair, says the three top personal issues regarding mental health for students are anxiety, stress and depression, followed by family origin and personal growth and wellness. Graphic by Stephanie Hagenaars.

Elected student representatives say any government, regardless of ideology, must maintain a commitment to mental health resources.

Amanda LeBlanc, Students’ Association of Mount Royal University vice president – external, and Shayla Breen, SAMRU VP student affairs, say they will continue their lobbying efforts to convey the importance of accessible mental health resources.

“We do not see an alternative,” says Breen, adding, “There needs to be a long-term, sustainable commitment to funding these services. These supports directly impact a student’s well-being.”

Where the funding is being spent

Kandi McElary, MRU’s director of Wellness Services, says the first phase of funding allowed the hiring of four new part-time counsellors who will likely be cut when the funding concludes in 2020. 

There have been many other initiatives, such as the hiring of a mental health nurse and peer-led programs. 

In looking at government resources for mental health, Taras says it’s important to consider historically how right-of-centre parties have viewed the notion of “helping.”

As an example, he says, a religious conservative may feel that it’s up to church, community and civic organizations to help, while those on the other side of the political spectrum may say the help should come from public institutions.

“It’s just a different way of viewing the world,” says Taras. “The right-wing budget-cutters aren’t necessarily evil — they see help coming in different forms.”

Mirjam Knapik, the chair of student counselling at Mount Royal, says because more supports are in place and because more people are talking openly about mental health, it is not surprising to see more students come through the door with ever-more complex problems, rooted in stress, anxiety and depression.

Taras also sees the stress playing out in the classroom.

“A student in the classroom can be getting the kind of help that they need and it’s still very difficult — it’s extremely difficult — to get in the system and be recognized,” he admits. “And you just hope it doesn’t get worse. You hope the government recognizes just how important this is in people’s lives.”

Editor: Shaunda Lamont | 

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