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National Post

Ontario is investing in graduating mental health professionals faster, while also spending on mental health support on campus

Published Dec 10, 2022  •  Last updated Dec 10, 2022  •  4 minute read

Ahad Bandealy is founder of Get A-Head, an innovative training platform introduced in Ontario universities for graduate students in psychology and mental health studies. Photo taken in Kenora, Ont., November 24, 2022.Photo by Bronson Carver/Postmedia

Parents across Canada know the steep toll the pandemic has taken on young people’s mental health.

“I had two daughters graduate (during the COVID era) and I’ve seen the impacts of the pandemic on post-secondary students with my own personal experience,” says Ontario’s Minister of Colleges and Universities Jill Dunlop. “It’s obviously had a toll on students.”

Dunlop is looking to address a shortage of mental health professionals in the province by investing in ways to graduate professionals faster and more efficiently.

At the same time, her government is also investing in the overall mental health on campus as students exit the pandemic and return to class.

Those measures include the “game-changing” Get A-Head (GAH) technology recently implemented in all post-secondary institutions in Ontario after a successful pilot at the University of Waterloo in 2020.

The mental health training and delivery digital platform will help fast-track mental health professionals by making it easier for graduate students to put in their required clinical hours. The platform matches students with mental health patients, and allows digital supervision by instructors.

“It was something that happened because of COVID, but when students were returning to classes, they preferred to have this virtual option,” Dunlop tells the National Post. “So I think that this is really key that this program is being offered at campuses across Ontario.”

The patented “one-way mirror” allows instructors to oversee their students’ online therapy sessions online with no obstructions. Typically, teachers are required to physically be present while students deliver therapy to clients, which can impede the session’s flow.

Additionally, GAH uses a matching algorithm to pair patients in need of mental-health care with graduate students looking to accumulate clinical hours. Over 10,000 sessions have already been logged since the beginning of the academic year.

“I love the AI technology behind the Get A-Head program, and the work that’s being done to help ensure that psychology students are able to get their placement hours to be able to graduate as professionals because we need them in the field,” Dunlop says.

Ahad Bandealy is the brains behind the mental health training and delivery platform. While pursuing his doctoral in behavioural health at the University of Toronto in 2009, which he would later suspend to create the Get-A-Head platform, Bandealy realized that the system of therapeutic supervision was flawed.

So, he developed a better way to both train and supervise future mental health professionals and deliver care at the same time.

Bandealy says Ontario’s investment in programs like Get A-Head “provides students with the tools they need and offers any individual thinking about pursuing a career in mental health an efficient path to graduation.”

Dr. Dillon Browne, assistant professor of Psychology at Waterloo University, says the training program that debuted on his campus “simultaneously meets several of our professional goals in one swoop — provision of services, professional training, and research.”

As it stands, Ontario universities require students do unpaid placements during their graduate studies and they rarely receive a stipend.

“If we don’t pay our smartest people to do advanced studies, we will lose them to our industry and there will be a brain-drain from our public institutions into the private sphere before higher degrees are awarded.”

Currently, only a fraction of Ontario’s psychology students graduate to become mental health professionals compared with other provinces.

Ontario admits only 138 doctoral psychology students yearly, and only 69 per cent complete their doctorate. By comparison, Quebec admits an average of 282 students annually with 90 per cent reaching completion.

According to data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information, Ontario ranks ninth among all provinces in both number of registered psychologists (2018: 3,809 in Ontario vs. 8,734 in Quebec) and psychologists per 100,000 (2018: 26 in Ontario vs. 53 in Quebec).

One large barrier for students in Ontario is the long and expensive road to professional accreditation. While universities in Quebec offer a combined masters-doctoral program that takes four to six years to complete, in Ontario, it can take students up to 12 years to complete all their university requirements.

Aside from programs to fast-track graduates, the government has invested $24.5 million on university mental health supports this year alone. Dunlop stresses the importance of “having these supports available.”

Dr. Sylvain Roy, former president of the Ontario Psychological Association, says the province’s investments represent a shift in thinking by the government and a step in the right direction for supporting the mental health needs of Ontarians.

“Ontario has historically not prioritized mental health and the mental health workforce until now,” he says.

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14 Nov 2023

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