Home News Canada The mental health crisis on campuses

The mental health crisis on campuses


There is a mental health crisis on campus that is overwhelming the resources of most university and college counselling centres, leaving a dangerous void for some 25,000 Jewish post-secondary students in Canada.

Today, one in three university-aged students experiences mental health disabilities that affect their everyday life, according to the World Health Organization International College Student Initiative. The number of students on college and university campuses with identified mental health disabilities has more than doubled over the past five years.

Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among young adults aged 15-34, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Schools are struggling to keep up with the demand for mental health services. University is a time of great change and uncertainty for students.

For Jewish students, the threat of anti-Semitism and the growing presence of anti-Israel campaigns on campus can add fuel to the fire, creating a more stressful environment.

Josh B. a third-year McGill University student in Montreal (all sources were granted anonymity) says there is a definite vibe of anti-Israel sentiment on campus.

“BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions movement) is the hip, cool thing to do,” he said. “Opposition to that is kind of like being a social outcast in a way.”

While he says nobody feels “like there’s an assault on Jewish students,” he doesn’t generally “out” himself as Jewish. “It’s not the unwillingness to have a conversation,” he adds, “it’s more like, maybe that’s going to look bad on me and maybe that will affect how the person marking my work looks at me.”

That sentiment is echoed by Sofie K.,a third-year student in Halifax, who told The CJN about an incident at the beginning of last semester, where a dispute in class with her professor got a little heated.

After commenting on the negative way in which he was discussing western Judeo-Christian values, and pointing out that “the term itself is being discussed by some Jews as a form of erasure of the violence against us caused by Christians,” Sophie told her professor she would appreciate if he stopped using the term. “He started defending himself, refusing to change it, raising his voice.” She, too, felt uncomfortable outing herself as a Jewish student.

Providing effective support for mental health challenges is one of the most pressing issues on campuses today. The number of students who need treatment far exceeds the resources of most counselling centres, resulting in a substantial unmet need for mental health treatment. At schools across the country, waitlists for a therapist can range from three weeks to three months. And that’s for the students who actually seek help.

While universities and colleges are playing catch up, Jewish agencies and organizations have heard the call and are working to help. New initiatives from familiar faces on campus like Hillel and Chabad in addition to Jewish Addiction Community Services (JACS) are helping to identify students in crisis and make sure they don’t fall through the cracks.

We’re in crisis here, so any organization that can put forward something that is going to attract the kids and bring them to a place where they can get help, discuss with someone who is knowledgeable and find each other to help support each other is critical,” says Leanne Matlow, cognitive behavioural therapy counsellor and founder of Mental Health Empowerment Day.


Hillel Ontario, whose coverage area includes nine universities with some 14,000 Jewish students, is one of the organizations with whom Matlow has worked.

“Hillel is trying to do some things because sometimes those are the places where the kids are going and they need to talk to somebody who might be able to help them access services,” she says. It offers a variety of wellness programs on campus, including meditation and yoga, stress buster programs, visits from therapy dogs and seminars.

Beverly Shimansky, the chief campus and engagement officer at Hillel Ontario, says the issues on campus are only increasing, presenting a challenging situation for their staff. “We are thinking critically about how to create programs that aren’t just social but speak to the need of students who are feeling isolated.”

It used to be just about getting students to come to a program, she says, but “it isn’t just about that. It’s about bringing people together… when people are often feeling very alone.” Across campuses, she says, Hillel staff are seeing students struggling with stress, anxiety and depression, including some who may physically harm themselves.

Hillel professionals are trained to be good listeners, Shimansky says. “We want to make sure that they are trusting us to share and open up because they might not go to anybody else and their parents aren’t necessarily there to see the signs of a student who hasn’t showered, or hasn’t eaten, or who looks dishevelled.”

But, she cautions, Hillel professionals are not clinically trained, at least not yet. Some 40 staff are set to take part in Hillel International’s pilot launch of Kognito, an interactive simulation program that teaches front line workers how to recognize the signs of emotional distress, initiate a conversation and refer those in need to support services.

Mental health is being taken more seriously at Chabad Lubavitch, according to Rabbi Chalom Loeub of the Chabad Jewish Student Centre of Vancouver who covers the University of British Columbia and several other universities and colleges in Vancouver. Rabbi Loeub says he, too, is noticing more people who need help dealing with mental health issues. He has also received training through a number of Chabad seminars on how to identify those in need.

Jack K., a third-year McGill student, attends Friday night dinners at Chabad in Montreal and participates in a study group. “It’s nice to have a familiar community that is very welcoming, where you feel very comfortable, especially in a new city,” he says.

For Josh B., another student, going to Chabad for Friday night dinner is very much a de-stresser. Chabad “is sticking to basics,” he says, “which I think in a way can alleviate some of those [mental health] issues.”

“Chabad provides a consistent open space for students to come and feel at home, to get the stuff that they would get at home every Friday night.”

While programs by Jewish organizations like Hillel and Chabad attract some Jewish students, they don’t appeal to everyone who is feeling disconnected.

Sofie K., who struggles with mental health issues, says she has shied away from events in the Jewish community. “It felt very social, it’s busy,” she says, “and it’s loud.”

The culture on campus is an issue as well, she admits. After a crisis last year where both her mental and physical health declined, she found administrators and professors less then accommodating and felt pressured, “having to choose between ‘toughing it out’ and going into class versus taking care of myself and risking having to deal with the repercussions of that.”

JACS’s Courage to Change (C2C) program is one of the new Jewish mental health programs on campus, and it’s hoping to help catch any students that might fall through the cracks. It was established in memory of philanthropists Honey and Barry Sherman by an anonymous donor, and while JACS may not be the first Jewish agency you think of when it comes to dealing with the mental health crisis on campus, Ita Tobis, the group’s director of campus programming, notes that “addiction and mental health are so closely intertwined.”

“How do people cope with their mental stress?” she asks. “Binging on Netflix, binge drinking – all the things that we consider to be maladaptive and coping in terms of addiction.” Tobis says you have to become an addiction and mental health agency if you are moving onto campus. It’s important for students to have a Jewish organization that is culturally and spiritually sensitive so that they are “talking to someone who gets it  – like exams and holidays overlapping and dealing with the anxiety in that.”

While other Jewish organizations have the same primary goals, JACS adds in-house resources, such as individual counselling, support groups, even free services and sliding scale therapy, for students. In collaboration with other Jewish organizations, Tobis says, JACS is running a variety of programs across nine campuses in Ontario including workshops for students, professional development training for campus staff, panel discussions, student leader/peer training, webinars and mental health weekends.

Specifically, Tobis says JACS programs focusing on consent, anxiety workshops and study “jams” with therapists on hand are some of the ways they are accessing students. While C2C is only available in Ontario, plans are in place to expand to Montreal and Vancouver and eventually nationally and internationally.

In the meantime, JACS is compiling impact reports to track its success in engaging students, and continues to collaborate with other, not necessarily Jewish, organizations that have developed successful ways to engage students in order to both share best practices and learn from one another.

One such organization is Stella’s Place  Young Adult Mental Health in Toronto, which sees some 1,500 young people a year. Stella’s Place partners young adults and professionals to provide a collaborative, innovative model of mental health services including peer support, clinical, online, employment, wellness, and recovery services, according to Donna Green, founder and chairperson.

Green says transitions can be overwhelmingly challenging for young people. “(They) have a different set of challenges than 30 years ago, in finding work, in finding connection, in finding themselves.”

Recognizing the lack of places for those between 16 and 29 years old to find help for their mental health issues, Stella’s Place partners with clinicians and peers to provide help in a number of ways, including a once-a-week mental health walk-in clinic to combat the waitlists many students face when looking for help, and Bean Bag Chat, an app where young people can get individual support from peer support staff online. (The app is currently only serving those in the Greater Toronto Area.)

According to mental health advocates, when it comes to finding ways to deal with the crisis, one size does not fit all. You need to employ different models to serve different students with different types of mental disorders. For some, telephone counselling works, while for others, Internet-based clinical tools may be helpful. Most organizations agree that collaboration and sharing of resources is the only way forward.

Students, through whom much of the push for change is coming, may be less inclined to attach stigma to their mental health issues. “People are taking mental health and mental disorders just as they would a physical disorder,” says Jack K. “Like, if you broke your ankle, your doctor wouldn’t tell you to just walk it off. These things are real.”