Alberta Finance Minister Joe Ceci announced on Feb. 24 that the province will likely face a $10.5-billion deficit as a result of the declining oil industry and subsequent loss of royalties. With the 2016–17 budget announcement expected in early April, many promised programs will be sent to the chopping block.
While the provincial government probably thinks they have bigger fish to fry, renewing Alberta’s post-secondary mental health funding should be a priority. Unfortunately, it will likely be one of the first things to go.
This funding, instituted in 2013 by the previous Tory government, granted $3 million each to the University of Calgary, University of Alberta and University of Lethbridge over the course of three years.
Post-secondary students are particularly susceptible to mental health problems. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Canadian university students, and chronic issues like anxiety and depression often manifest during young adulthood.
At the U of C, this money went toward hiring staff and creating programs at the SU Wellness Centre, including implementing a triage system that integrated counselling, health services and chaplains.
With the funding set to expire this summer, the provincial NDP once seemed keen on renewing this government support for post-secondary mental health. After the election, they proposed a province-wide mental health review led by Liberal leader David Swann and municipal affairs minister Danielle Larivee.
The review formally recommended creating “healthy and supportive post-secondary campus environments through health promotion, addiction and mental health campus services, and community partnerships.”
But that was it. No funding models were proposed.
This vague phrasing — coupled with oil that costs less than the barrel it’s stored in — suggests post-secondary mental health funding probably won’t be a factor into the upcoming budget.
Programs like UCalgary Strong and the Students’ Union Stress Less Week are well-intentioned, but the best way to combat mental health problems on campus is hiring trained professionals and implementing programs through facilities like the Wellness Centre.
If post-secondary mental health funding is not renewed, these programs will be in jeopardy. Staff will be cut and wait-times for counselling services will likely skyrocket. Students in need may not be able to get the help they require.
The Council of Alberta University Students is currently lobbying the government for funding based on the number of students enrolled in a university, as opposed to the lump sum given out three years ago. Incoming SU vice-president external Tristan Bray made this one of his key platform points in the recent SU elections.
But with the Albertan economy in its current state, it’s very likely this funding won’t be renewed in any form. That’s a real loss.
Young adulthood is a formative time. While we’re in university, we’re figuring out who we are and who we’re going to be. We’re trying new things, taking risks and exploring our identities. But it’s also a period in our lives where mental illness is most likely to rear its ugly head, and when we’re most likely to seek help. But it’s difficult to get that help if resources aren’t available.
That’s why post-secondary mental health funding is important. Even if you don’t directly face mental health problems, you probably know someone who does. And concrete services like counselling staff and Wellness Centre programs are of vital importance in combating mental illness.
The provincial government may rightfully be worried about the collapse of the oil industry, but they can’t let post-secondary mental health funding fall to the wayside. Because investing in students’ mental well-being isn’t just a smart move now — it’s also an investment in a healthier, happier future.
Melanie Woods, Gauntlet Editorial Board