Social Sciences research aims to improve mental health resources through global e-mental health survey

A student sitting on an outdoor staircase working at an open laptop

A global e-mental health survey carried out by the Faculty of Social Sciences’ Centre for Advanced Research on Mental Health and Society is helping shape mental health resources for students.

A McMaster survey is helping to shape the resources available for students experiencing mental health issues.

The Faculty of Social Sciences’ Centre for Advanced Research on Mental Health and Society has been carrying out the Student e-Mental Health Project for the past three years, and released its stakeholder report for the two-year data mark on April 3.

The study hopes to understand the types of help-seeking behaviours that students engage in, with the hopes that this research could shape the services that higher education institutions, such as McMaster, provides.

It’s part of a larger project created by the World Health Organization in partnership with Harvard University, with surveys being carried out by universities across the world.

“The timing of our study is so important, given the many stressors students faced throughout the pandemic,” said Marisa Young, director of the Centre for Advanced Research on Mental Health and Society. “We hope this research will help guide the university’s efforts in supporting student mental health moving forward.”

The goal of the survey, according to Lead Research Assistant Jessica Monaghan, is to be able to inform the campus well-being resources available to students. That’s done by understanding what help-seeking behaviours they engage in, and the mental health challenges they’re facing.

Since some of the questions could be triggering, the project team collaborated with the Student Wellness Centre to be able to keep students safe through the provision of crisis resources and invites to expedited counselling appointments for students in immediate need. In this way, the project could address the needs of a section of the student population who may have acute mental health challenges.

The report was distributed internally to McMaster stakeholders, ahead of a planned release of public-facing materials later in the year. It covered impairment in school and personal life, help-seeking behaviours, the impact of COVID-19, and 12-month prevalence of mental health disorders.

The findings can be divided into two main areas: facilitators and barriers.


Facilitators are all the resources that students access to help buffer the barriers they’re experiencing.

“One of the most striking findings,” said Lead Research Assistant Jessica Monaghan, “was the high emotional impact of the pandemic, but that fortunately most students were able to find help when they needed it, or manage the distress on their own.”

So overall the study showed that students are able to manage the situations they find themselves in.

It also showed that students do access informal social support. Most students had about four people they could confide in if they were stressed or in crisis.

Students were also likely to be using clubs or other more formal versions of social support, pointing to importance of having social components within future services.

Intersectional elements were also important in the study, with findings showing the importance of providing tailored resources to intersectional identities. Intersectional services such as the Pride Community Centre and Indigenous Student Services were highlighted as great examples of this.

“When promoting mental health becomes a shared responsibility, we’re creating those communities of coping to better support our McMaster student population,” said Monaghan.


The main barriers that the team found were that students weren’t really aware of where they could access the services that were available.

The team also found a high prevalence of mental health issues reaching a clinical threshold. As much as one in five students were reaching a clinical threshold for some Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) mental health disorders. That was in line with, or even higher than, the rates seen in the general population. Major depressive disorder was also prevalent, with some students meeting that clinical criterion.

Monaghan said the survey screened for symptoms for disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), eating disorders and social anxiety. It showed high rates of ADHD symptoms, pointing to a potential need for greater supports within the classroom. Though as screeners, Monaghan stressed that the rates may be a little higher than expected, since the screeners have lower specificity.

It also looked into substance use among students, including opioid use, based on the DSM clinical threshold.

Upcoming projects

The University of British Columbia, which led the Canadian portion of the project, is working on a tailored mental health app, providing students with tailored mental health support and coaching.

McMaster is deciding on how to use these findings, whether that be an app or through continued promotion of mental health services and resources.

ARMS is grateful for the support of McMaster’s Office of Institutional Research & Analysis and the Student Wellness Centre in carrying out this project.

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