The increased mental health strains caused from seeking a post-secondary education need to be addressed, says Okanagan College student Samantha Wall.
Wall says rising tuition fees, course load stress and an overall upswing in mental health challenges are presenting challenges for students.
“The Canadian Association of College and University Student Services 2016 survey indicates that 58.1 per cent of the 43,780 students surveyed felt their academics have been traumatic or very difficult to handle within the last 12 months,” Wall said.
“With financial pressures, part or full time jobs and competitive professional and academic environments, it’s not surprising that mental health among students is at a low point.”
Wall made the comments during her presentation to the Okanagan College Board of Governors meeting on Tuesday, asking the board to address these hardships students are facing and create a positive learning experience at the OC campuses across the Okanagan.
Wall, the OC Students’ Union Board representative and internal director, was joined by several other students in speaking to the OC board.
Wall offered four specific suggestions on how the board can respond to students’ mental health concerns:
*Revive a previously halted nurse on campus initiative to promote health and wellness
* provide more counselling resources
* spread the knowledge of financial support access, such as having a bursary and scholarship awards expo
*address inefficiencies in the educational advising department
Wall pointed out there are 12 post-secondary B.C. institutions with nurses and/or doctors on campus, most operating a clinic for students offering services such as immunization, mental wellness, food and nutrition tips, first-aid care, physiotherapy and assistance with stress, anxiety and sleep disorders.
“Throughout the years we have found that more and more students have been turning to us, as well as the counselling department, in order to fill the void left behind by the lack of a nurse on campus,” Wall said.
Regarding counselling services, ideally a range of one counsellor to every 1,500 students would be sufficient. Salmon Arm, Penticton and Vernon campuses of OC meet that target range, but in Kelowna there is only 1.6 counsellors employed which works out to a ratio of one counsellor per 3,250 students.
Wall said the college website indicates that education advisors refer students to internal and external services such as program coordinators and chairs, crisis counselling, accessibility services and financial awards.
“There are approximately 10 education advisors spread over the four campuses so students are not experiencing long wait times for their appointments, but are often referred elsewhere while in their appointment,” she said, making it feel like it was a waste of their time.
Wall said while students advocate to halt tuition fee increases and to abolish student loans in favour of a provincial grants system similar to what the provincial government in Newfoundland has adopted, she said falling short of those measures, Okanagan College can help raise awareness of alternative funding opportunities.
“In 2014-15, the Okanagan College Foundation distributed more than $1 million in awards to more than 85 students. However, there should be more awareness for funding opportunities available,” Wall said.
Her suggestion was to create an expo event, organized by the college and students, to help showcase the array of bursary, scholarship and grant opportunities that many of her co-students are not familiar with.
“With a lack of students grants from the B.C. government, high interest rates on student loans and chronic underfunding for post-secondary institutions, there are more barriers to education than ever before,” Wall said.
OC president Jim Hamilton said the campus nurse program ended in 2014, a program coordinated between the college and UBC Okanagan and Interior Health.
He suggested there might have been staffing and funding issues surrounding the program’s demise at that time.
“It is certainly something we can take a look at again given the numbers we are dealing with today of students on campus,” Hamilton said.
The board noted that access to counselling services has been increased over a further three days a week.
OC board chair Connie Denesiuk said the financial aid expo concept is one the board can also follow up on.
“I think what has been presented to the board has been thoughtful and constructive,” Hamilton added, noting that the college also shares the mental health concerns of students expressed by Wall.