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Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Care on College Campuses

A young African American lady wearing casual clothes sits in front of a windo with the shadow of a counsellor in front of the camera

While mental health is an ongoing struggle for many, it’s no secret it has worsened among Canadians since the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a Canada-wide survey between 2020 and 2021, 38% of Canadians indicated a deterioration in mental health since Covid-19 began, including feeling anxious and worried, sad, stressed and lonely. And people who were already experiencing mental health difficulties were more vulnerable to the negative impacts of the pandemic, even resulting in being four times more likely to have suicidal thoughts or attempt self-harm.

It’s a trend that MaKami College, like many other post-secondary institutions, has witnessed first-hand in its student population.

“Mental health issues of all kinds have always been an issue we have experienced with students,” says Olakunle Akinyode, MaKami’s Director of the school’s Strategic Academic Learning Team (SALT), an experienced occupational therapist and registered counselling psychologist. “Post-secondary students are under a lot of stressors already that make them vulnerable to these types of challenges, and the pandemic just heightened all of that.”

Akinyode says the number of more extreme mental health situations, such as self-harm and suicide attempts, has been on the rise post-pandemic.

“In recent months we have encountered circumstances where we’ve intervened at just the right time in many cases, where students otherwise may not be with us today” he says. “It has really highlighted the importance of providing crucial mental health supports and resources to students on an ongoing basis.”

At MaKami, those supports and resources are ample and available. The school places a high priority on assisting students with physical, mental and socio-economical barriers. That starts with a welcoming environment where everyone, regardless of their background or challenges feels accepted and comfortable to discuss their struggles with instructors, tutors and on-site counsellors if they need it.

The school offers a number of free supports in-house to help address and mental health issues, such as free test anxiety workshops, tutoring to help students better manage their workloads, a variety of social opportunities to help students create peer support, and free counselling for its students and their immediate family members who need it. These counselling sessions can help with a variety of things, including providing some good coping mechanisms that can have a real impact on a student’s mental health.

But the biggest barriers to helping people with mental health challenges is identifying those who have them, increasing the awareness of them, and breaking down the stigmas surrounding them.

“Unfortunately, we get a lot of students who may not even be aware they have a mental health struggle,” says Akinyode. “They’ve just been struggling with say, anxiety or substance abuse, and going to school just amplifies it.” For these students, it’s crucial they reach out, and the sooner the better. “Once these mental health issues it starts to affect everything, like attendance and assignments, and it can snowball fast,” Akinyode says. “If they start to fall behind it can be demoralizing to try and catch up, and they can end up giving up and dropping out, which just makes them feel worse.”

Students may also feel too embarrassed to reach out for help. For these students, they should know they are not alone. Akinyode says most students who come through MaKami’s doors struggle with some mental health issue during their time at MaKami, especially after the pandemic. Luckily at MaKami they have free, in-house support, and they works closely with Alberta Health and other mental health organizations, and are able to recommend students to outside services when needed.

“We are very proud of all the hard work and effort we put in here at MaKami to help address the mental health challenges of ours students,” says Akinyode. “We would like to see more post-secondary institutions on board with these types of holistic approaches, since we truly believe so many more students could be helped locally and even across Canada.”

There are many free services available should you or someone you know needs mental health support in Alberta:

  • Text the Crisis Text Line – text CONNECT to 741741
  • Call the Alberta Health Services mental health helpline direct at 1-877-303-2642

Olakunle Akinyode holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Occupational Therapy and a Master’s Degree in Counselling Psychology. He has worked as an occupational therapist for more than 15 years and is certified by the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association as well as the College of Alberta Psychologists.

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