Skip navigation
In my opinion

Is it time for mandatory mental health training for university students in Canada?

Despite efforts to address student mental health, services are not meeting needs.


Mental health struggles have long been documented among university students. More than half of students suffer from depression and anxiety, compared to 11 per cent of the general population. This has lasting consequences for students’ mental and academic development, including, for some, the discontinuation of their studies. Sadly, this issue worsened considerably during the COVID-19 pandemic and added sociopolitical stressors have since continued to impact student mental health (e.g., Black Lives Matter, the war in Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas conflict). These factors further exacerbate the existing strain on mental health services in the public healthcare system. While universities have resumed in-person activities, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations’ 2022 report (in partnership with the Mental Health Commission of Canada) highlighted the ongoing severity of students’ mental health struggles post-pandemic. Now, more than ever, a large-scale, preventive mental health approach is needed to promote student mental health and well-being.

Current interventions

Universities are doing their best to provide various individual and group interventions targeting student mental health. Despite a breadth of services being offered in an arguably less stigmatized mental health climate, a gap exists between services offered and student engagement. Lack of student engagement may be explained in part by scarcity of time, motivation (belief that services will be helpful) and awareness about mental health symptoms (e.g. depression). Specifically, those at-risk for psychological and academic stressors – including low-income students, international students, caretakers/parents and individuals with pre-existing mental illness – face additional time barriers, as their limited availability to engage with optional mental health appointments is often taken up by other responsibilities (e.g., part-time work, caretaking).

However, this gap may also be due to poor visibility and accessibility of services. For example, individual interventions such as university-based psychologists are available, but have long waitlists; One survey found that only 15 per cent of students reported engaging in university counseling one year after the pandemic. Group interventions such as peer support groups, active listening workshops and stress-reduction activities (e.g. free yoga classes) can go largely underused.

Overall, this points to the need for change among university mental health support systems. Can universities encourage greater student engagement with mental health services? Is there a way to improve students’ mental health literacy to prevent future challenges?

Mental health education and mandatory training

Mental health education – standardized programs and strategies for mental health promotion – is already being taught at some high schools and universities, with documented benefits. For example, the Mental Health and High School Curriculum Guide teaches high school students and teachers about the stigma of mental illness, mental health and communication, as well as how to seek help and build resilience. The well-known Science of Well-Being class taught by Laurie Santos at Yale University has also been shown to improve student’s reported well-being. While these are longer-term interventions (e.g. semester-long), they highlight that mental health education can act as both an educational resource and a health promotion tool.

University-wide mandatory training in Canada is not new and guarantees students protected time to learn about a specific topic. For example, in Quebec, Act 151 against sexual violence in higher education institutions introduced mandatory training for all students and staff. Likewise, universities include compulsory modules on academic integrity.

 A mandatory mental health training would teach students easy-to-implement strategies to manage stress and solidify “mental health literacy” to improve knowledge of mental health issues and help identify professional resources. Importantly, mandatory training would also emphasize a university’s willingness to invest in student mental health by integrating such content into orientation activities.

There are undoubtedly many remaining questions and potential obstacles to consider while discussing the benefits of mandatory mental health education. For one, would the obligation to participate reduce students’ motivation to engage with the content? How much time would students be willing to commit to the training (e.g. 30 minutes? Two hours)? Second, how long-term does an intervention need to be in order to be successful? Is a one-time training enough? For example, one study found that mandatory sexual misconduct training in the U.S. has only limited benefits after a single training session. Should a semester-long course be mandatory?

In conclusion, university students’ long-standing and worsening stress levels underline the need to improve and restructure mental health education at a public health level. Universities have an important responsibility to protect the well-being of their students throughout their academic journey. Further, universities have the potential to help alleviate the strain on public healthcare services. Given the proven benefits of mental health education, universities should consider using compulsory training as a prevention approach. If successful in preventing mental health deterioration in students, this would also reduce the demand for other mental health services on campus. Mandatory training could be the missing step for Canadian universities to concretely support student mental health and ultimately, improve students’ academic experience.

For mental health resources, visit the Canadian Mental Health Association webpage.

The original draft of this piece was written during a ComSciConQC workshop.

Eloïse Fairbank is a PhD candidate in psychology at Concordia University.

Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Harold A Maio / April 6, 2024 at 07:46


    Not if it is mandatory that we teach students there i a stigma to mental illnesses?

    We seem to believe it is. The results are wholly negative.

    Harold A Maio

  2. J Baker / April 10, 2024 at 15:48

    Is it time to begin providing people with mental health and wellbeing knowledge and tools in elementary and high school? The earlier we start, the sooner mental illnesses can be averted.

Click to fill out a quick survey