York U team receives close to $1M in funding for mental-health care virtual community for students

Online mental health for students featured image

A York University research team will receive more than $898,000 in funding and in-kind contributions from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and industry partners to research and develop support for the mental health needs of students through a Mindfulness Virtual Community (MVC).

Farah Ahmad
Farah Ahmad

“The goal is to improve the mental health of students, in relation to experiences of stress, anxiety or depression through a supportive online community,” says Professor Christo El Morr from the School of Health Policy & Management. El Morr, Professor Farah Ahmad of the School of Health Policy & Management and Professor Paul Ritvo of the School of Kinesiology & Health Science are the principal investigators for the study.

“We aim to develop a student-centred virtual platform to meaningfully engage them in learning about available resources, self-help modules and mindfulness practice,” said Ahmad.

As Ritvo points out: “Online mindfulness programs have been demonstrated to have mental health benefits equal to in-person programs.”

The researchers think more students may seek help online now as many are reluctant to pursue in-person help because of the stigma associated with mental health problems.

“I am excited to see Canadian ingenuity at work to support the health of Canadians. These projects have the potential to make high quality mental health services more available to the young Canadians who need them, and they are also making great strides for the delivery of increased home care services. We have the talent, the intelligence and the passion in Canada to make the field of eHealth one of our (many) strengths,” said the Minister of Health Jane Philpott.

Paul Ritvo
Paul Ritvo

The York team will conduct a randomized controlled trial, recruiting 600 students over three semesters at York University. The students will be divided into three groups. The first will use a MVC platform for two weeks; the second, an eight-week, in-person group-based mindfulness program using cognitive behavioural therapy; and the third will be placed in a wait-list control group. The researchers will compare the groups for impact on mental health, engagement and costs.

“Through this funding, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research is helping our researchers grow their innovative research programs and contribute to scientific knowledge that will lead to improved health resources for students,” said Robert Haché, vice-president research & innovation.

Funding for the project is part of CIHR’s Youth and Adolescent Mental Health priority area of eHealth Innovation Partnership Program (eHIPP), developed by the CIHR in collaboration with the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program. Philpott and the Minister of Innovation, Science, & Economic Development Navdeep Singh Bains announced $13.8M for 22 innovative ehealth projects on Friday, March 5.

York will conduct the research with information technology partner ForaHealthyMe.com and several partner organizations.

Christo El Morr

“A Mindfulness Virtual Community would incorporate key elements of online student-to-professional group meetings, moderated peer discussion and mental health education,” said El Morr.

Students can access an online community and resources at any time. “The ultimate goal is to help students adopt health-enhancing behaviours that reduce needs for psychiatric and clinical counselling services,” said Ritvo.

In addition, the MVC model is expected to reduce pressures from an overburdened health-care system and cut wait times for help, said Ahmad.

The team hypothesizes that the MVC and group-based mindfulness groups will be similar in terms of reductions in mental distress, but the former will likely be less costly.  These methods are complementary, and in combination, could be less costly than traditional specialists’ services. In the next phase of the project, the team hopes to conduct a multi-campus, national trial.

For more information on MVC, visit the Student Mental Health website.