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Mental Health

Access to College and University for Consumer/Survivors

A National Picture

Heather McKee

Reprinted from "Supported Education" issue of Visions Journal, 2003, No. 17, p. 20

For over a decade, the Canadian Mental Health Association’s (CMHA) National Office has been actively involved in promoting access to higher education for consumers. In 1993, CMHA published Learning Diversity: Accommodations in Colleges and Universities for Students with Mental Illness, one of the first resources available on the subject. Between 1999 and 2002, CMHA National engaged in several local and national projects to increase awareness and understanding of the issues faced by mental health consumers who wish to attend college or university. As a result of these projects — including one based at Northwest College in Terrace, BC — a number of partnerships have been developed between students, consumers, mental health professionals and college and university professionals.

One of the lessons learned from these projects was the need for student/consumers to have access to support early in their education career, especially during the high school years, when young people are deciding whether to continue their education. For this reason, the next phase of the CMHA project is addressing that issue: promoting the rights of student/consumers to have the necessary supports to help them overcome a variety of obstacles and successfully make the transition from high school to post-secondary education.

Supports for students with mental health problems can come from informal sources such as peers, friends and family. It also comes from formal supports such as rehabilitation-oriented mental health professionals, supported education programs, and from universities and colleges, usually through the disability services or counseling offices of the campus. However, supported education programs remain few and far between across Canada.

The good news is that within the formal mental health system, there is increasing support for the psychosocial rehabilitation model which includes the concept of supported education. Mental health reform in several provinces, including British Columbia and Ontario, specifically highlights the importance of access to such services. However, as mentioned, actual funding to make these services available to consumers still lags behind.

In the post-secondary education field, a mixed picture also emerges. While disability service offices are offering supports to increasing numbers of student/consumers (or ‘students with psychiatric disabilities’), the larger social barrier of dramatically rising tuition is acting as a serious deterrent to consumers living on government disability income. Awareness of the various issues faced by students with psychiatric disabilities is gradually occurring throughout college and university campuses.

The emerging field of early psychosis intervention is another area of potential positive impact, providing support for people (often young) experiencing their first episode of psychosis. These programs are raising the awareness of the good possibility of recovery for all people with mental illness, especially for those who are offered prompt, sensitive care and who are supported to resume their participation in the community. While the initial focus of these programs has been on the need for prompt treatment, consumers are increasingly being supported with their educational aspirations.

One young woman who has spoken publicly about her experience with psychosis describes the lack of support she still faces in her education in the Winter 2003 issue of Schizophrenia Digest magazine. According to her, she’s “bounced from department to department, and can expect to wait in line for one to three hours with every visit.” Her requests for assistance and accommodation are met with ‘attitude.’ Despite this, she has been successful in continuing with her education.

One area to watch in the future will be the impact of the increasing national attention being paid to mental health issues, as exemplified by the recent Commission on the Future of Healthcare report, also known as the Romanow Report. With the recognition that mental health has been the ‘orphan child’ of health care for too long, there is increased motivation to improve the situation for Canadians experiencing mental health problems.

Will this attention lead to an increased recognition that people with mental health problems need more than health treatment, but also equal access to the basic elements of citizenship, including education? This remains to be seen; but, across Canada, there are important foundations upon which to build. More students with mental health problems are attending post-secondary education, and are seeking support and assistance when they need it. Some are becoming active in groups with other students with disabilities, or are taking the lessons they have developed through consumer/survivor activism into the education system. Much work has been done, and much more still remains to be done, to ensure that all students, including consumers, can fully benefit from their college and university education.

 
About the author
Heather was project manager with the CMHA National Higher Education projects up to 2002. She is currently working with the Ontario Peer Development Initiative, a provincial umbrella organization of consumer/survivor-run groups. Further information on the CMHA National Higher Education projects is available on the web at www.cmha.ca

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