‘This program saved my life’: Lessons learned from the implementation of an innovative student mental health program
In our institution we deal only with international students. These students are drawn from 61 different countries and they are often young, without their usual support networks, perhaps experiencing elevated stigma around getting help and a range of other academic, social and linguistic challenges and needs that vary by culture.
Traditional models of campus crisis intervention and community assistance programs are hugely underutilised by international students. Such models assume students have the confidence to seek support in a visible way and the ability to fit crises into work hours.
Plus, college staff already deal with such a broad range of issues that it’s challenging to extend beyond one’s training or personal boundaries to respond to mental health needs on a day-to-day basis. This is especially poignant because our students are coming from such diverse backgrounds and their mental health needs may also be culturally specific.
Taking on mental health issues and the stigma associated with it requires a “cultural shift”, not only societally but a shift in what we think support looks like and who we can access for help.
New models are already here
Now in its second year of partnership with Fraser International College, the International Student Support Program connects our students to professionals specialised in ex-pat counselling for students with diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. And it connects them instantly via multiple methods including an app, virtual chat, video connection, phone call or face-to-face.
Take a look! You’ll see in the infographic below that a huge percentage of our students get to access services in a way that wouldn’t be possible in traditional campus mental health programs:
Why is this program so successful at FIC?
Firstly, success came from the entire college uniting for an integrated approach. Embedding the service across student affairs, senior management, admissions, faculty and marketing involved things like:
- Training all staff in a mental health first aid course, so they all speak the same language around mental health and feel aware of and confident in their ability to connect students to support services;
- Marketing brochures highlighting the mental health program as a point of difference so families overseas can see the FIC model of wrapping a whole range of support services around their students;
- A welcoming Student Service Fair where the availability of this 24/7 support is talked about continuously!
- Regular internal communications that keep every team in the college proactively encouraging students to download the app and save the number to their phone;
- Supporting instructors in class to highlight the service. The Student Affairs team offers live demonstrations, brochures and presentations delivered in-class, and instructors are encouraged to put a link to the ISSP in their email signatures and course outlines as another service alongside academic support that is there to help.
Another important element is the level of expertise and around-the-clock availability. It is important to realize that one campus cannot support the wide range of language and background knowledge required to support the mental health needs of a diverse student population. By paying for this specialist, third-party, the ISSP, students now access counselling services with comprehensive language support, trained counsellors and counsellors by request from their own religious or cultural background.
Finally, the providers behind the program, Morneau Shepell and guard.me, have been very responsive to the reporting requirements of the college.Confidentiality is respected but students can consent to feedback loops on certain issues alerting the college to the need for more support. The provider’s level of responsiveness and ability to provide documentation needed on college referrals was paramount to its continuation and success.
A huge difference for everyone involved
Benefits to staff were greater than we expected. Knowing that the students have immediate support around the clock helps us all to sleep at night.
For one student, it has meant developing resilience to cope without fear of judgement: “As someone who has struggled for a long time with expressing my emotions and constantly stressing over situations, the app has been very useful to me as it has enabled me to always have someone I could talk to without feeling like I’m being judged.”
As another user of this program shared with us recently, “Thank you. This program saved my life.”
The program was adopted by the International College of Manitoba, another Canadian Navitas college, in May 2016.
Hopefully, it is just the beginning of a revolution in the way our support services look for all students around the world.