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A passerby looks at an LED signage board encouraging UBC students to seek mental health support.

UBC students struggle to access mental health financial aid

UBC offers a range of supports for students with mental-health needs

By Abi Hayward and Kallan Lyons , in City , on October 25, 2017

University of B.C. students with mental illnesses say the university needs to do a better job of communicating about the financial support available that they vitally need.

Those comments come after UBC President Santa Ono promised recently to be proactive about improving mental health services for students in his latest Facebook Live.

“Students in particular need our support,” Ono said in an early October blog post. “Because they are at a vulnerable period in their lives, a period of great changes and upheavals, and a period when passing and failing has serious consequences.”

“Financial aid isn’t offered to us up front,” said Daphnée Lévesque. “It was only following a crisis that I learned about the possibility.”

Lévesque, a facilitator for the UBC student-led mental-health support group Kaleidoscope, was hospitalized before finding out she was eligible for financial aid from the government program StudentAidBC.

She said if she’d known about funding opportunities in her first few years at UBC, it would have alleviated her financial stress.

“My hospital stays cost me more than just time,” said Lévesque. “During those stays, I wasn’t able to work, so I didn’t have an income. I had spent so much money on my tuition and I didn’t know if I would ever get it back.”

Financial support makes a difference

The university offers a range of supports, including financial advice and awards that students with mental-health issues can access. Students who know about these opportunities, like Tracy, a second-year social-work student, say applying is a straightforward process.

“I haven’t had to pay any of my tuition out of pocket since I started back at school,” said Tracy. “It’s been awesome.”

She said she wouldn’t be attending UBC if not for financial support. She left her studies at Simon Fraser University after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder almost 10 years ago. In 2010, she started at Langara College, where a disabilities services adviser encouraged her to apply for B.C. student grants.

Disability status is one way students with mental-health issues can access financial aid. But many don’t know that.

Tracy only discovered her mental illness is considered a permanent disability when the Langara adviser told her that. She was eligible for thousands of dollars of funding.

“I think the main barrier [is] not knowing about it,” said Tracy. “I’ve told so many people about it and they’ve said ‘I had no idea.’”

Tracy fills out paperwork for permanent disability funding.

What UBC offers

UBC provides 20 bursaries for students with disabilities, none of which are mental-illness specific. UBC enrolment services’ website directs students to the Canadian Mental Health Association, which offers 12 bursaries totalling $8,700.  The information is deep in the website and somewhat difficult to find.

“I would hope, if someone needs financial support that’s tied to their mental health concern, that they’d be willing to come and let us know about it,” said Darran Fernandez, the UBC director of enrolment services. He said it is the responsibility of students to disclose their concerns because there are funds to help them.

The challenge for universities

With one in five Canadians likely to suffer from mental illness in any given year, the challenge is great for large universities like UBC. The 15- to 24-year-old demographic is particularly vulnerable and more likely to experience mental illness than any other age group, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

“I think there is growing recognition among post-secondary institutions of the factors that contribute to student well-being and success, and access to finances is high among them,” said Tanya Miller, provincial co-ordinator for the mental-health association’s local Healthy Minds Healthy Campuses program.

That’s something UBC’s new president has strongly emphasized.

“There are many people and organizations actively trying to do something about the epidemic of mental illness among our young people,” said Ono.

“But more action is needed, by all of us.”