May 19, 2021

Social work-led study bridges gap in student mental health care

Gina Dimitropoulos looks to remedy lack of co-ordination, communication between Alberta Health Services and post-secondary institutions
A student in need of support
Students in need of mental health support are in danger of slipping through the cracks.

A lack of co-ordination between post-secondary institutions and Alberta Health Services (AHS) has created a sizable gap through which students in need of help for mental health issues are in danger of slipping, unable to access the support they need to thrive mentally, academically, and socially.

A new study led by University of Calgary Faculty of Social Work researcher Dr. Gina Dimitropoulos, PhD, aims to find solutions to remedy the situation and avoid preventable tragic outcomes. Building on existing partnerships between UCalgary researchers, post-secondary institutions, Student Health and Wellness Services and AHS, Dimitropoulos is seeking input from stakeholders to establish interventions that will prevent vulnerable students from falling through the cracks.

What students have shared with us is that when they're really struggling with a mental health crisis, they often really don't know where to turn for support.

“There often isn’t good communication between providers from different systems and sectors — how do we make sure that we're all working together with a young person who has a mental health issue?” she says.

Dimitropoulos, a member of the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and Education, envisions one potential solution as being a “wrap around” service through which students are paired with a care co-ordinator and/or peer navigator. Acting as a kind of conduit between learning institutions and mental health services, these co-ordinators would help students access services, ensuring the continuity of care, and assisting transitions from in-patient settings back to the university. She would also like to see orientation sessions for new students and their families that would inform them of resources available on campus.

Ultimately, though, she emphasizes that the success of the study, which is being funded in part through a gift from Bluegrove Endowment, a family-run fund, will depend on participation from a diverse array of student voices.

“We’re making sure we've got good representation from difficult cultural and ethnic [groups] — international students, students living on campus and students living in the community. We are thinking about a multi-pronged solution, because what might work for some people might not work for others,” she says. “We really would like to have students with lived experience be part of this discussion.”

Dr. Tamara Pringsheim, MD, a researcher with the Cumming School of Medicine and a deputy director at the Mathison Centre, agrees that the project is of vital importance and particularly timely, with the ongoing pandemic both exacerbating mental health issues for many and laying bare shortcomings in existing care models.

“This research will fill a critical gap by testing a model linking post-secondary students to clinical services, which may prevent worsening of mental health symptoms at a critical time in the young person’s life,” she says. “This work aligns perfectly with the Mathison Centre's focus on early identification, prevention and treatment of mental health disorders.”