A Mount Royal University student had been struggling with her mental health for some time, but it wasn’t until she had to get an abortion as a result of an unhealthy relationship that she decided to utilize campus counselling services.

The student, who will be referred to as Jordan to protect her identity, was referred to counselling services by her faculty advisor. However, she wound up waiting two weeks for her appointment, and is still faced with lengthy wait times even now that she’s become a regular. The toll it takes on her varies from week to week.

“Either I have nothing to say because nothing really happened, or I have a lot to say depending on how the week went.”

Another student, Kirsten Phillips, has also faced mental health struggles. She was fortunate to get her first appointment quickly due to a cancellation, but then found herself waiting weeks for a follow-up, despite her counsellor’s objections.

“The therapist I talked to told me that she wanted to get me back in to talk with her as soon as possible,” recalls Phillips. “She walked me to the front and asked personally if there was any way I could get in sooner than four weeks.”

Phillips was put on a waiting list, and didn’t see her counsellor again until nearly a month had passed.

“I was in a really dark place, and the best they could do for me during that time was to give me a suicide helpline number. I think if I didn’t have the kind of support I do from friends and family in my life that it might have been a lot harder.”

Students like Jordan and Phillips are taking the steps necessary to better their mental health, but they’re faced with obstacles of long wait times for on-campus appointments. If Mount Royal is so adamant about mental health awareness and advocacy, why are students waiting so long to access such services?

The fuss about funding 

The answer is a lack of resources, and yet Alberta is better than ever in terms of mental health funding in universities. All of the 26 publicly funded Alberta institutions receive grants from the government. In 2013, Mount Royal received a three-year grant of $250,000 each year to enhance student mental health and wellbeing.

For the last two years, Mount Royal has been drawing on grants of $280,000 from Advanced Education. However, this is only enough to offer short-term counselling, and any significant change in the economy has the potential to impact the programs and services offered on campus in the future.

Head of counselling services, Mirjam Knapik, is aware of the wait times. November and March are the busiest times of the year; students are getting their midterm marks back and are beginning to feel the pressure of impending due dates and self doubt over whether or not they can handle the rest of the year.

“The level of stress has been increasing over the semester and can add to existing challenges,” explains Knapik.

‘Let’s talk’ 

Another reason for long wait times is the overall increase in students who actually seek counselling services.

Mental illness is characterized by significant changes in mood, thinking and behaviour that are associated with dysfunction. According to data obtained by Healthy Campus Alberta, 90 per cent of post-secondary students reported feeling overwhelmed in the last year, 38 per cent felt so depressed it became difficult to function, and nearly 10 per cent had thoughts of suicide.

In light of this knowledge, many Canadian universities are developing comprehensive policies and services to address mental health problems on campus. Furthermore, the attitude around mental illness is beginning to shift.

“I certainly see that people are much more willing to talk about it and to have conversations now,” says Knapik. “This is more in the news and in public conversation, which is a really wonderful thing.”

Healthy alternatives 

To combat wait times, counselling services is offering alternative means of therapy. Walk-in services are available on a first-come first-serve basis, and room will be made for students in crisis. However, this option never boded well for Jordan.

“I haven’t actually gone to any,” says Jordan of the walk-ins, “I waited 45 minutes and I left because I didn’t think I should have to wait that long.” During that wait, no one checked to see if she was in crisis or not.

Counselling services has also introduced workshops on common themes such as stress, sleep, procrastination, anxiety, and building resilience. There are also Wellness Wednesdays, where a counsellor is available to field questions in a group setting. Knapik recommends this for students who are wanting to bridge the gap between their appointments.

“Students tend to be reluctant to attend events and services that include other people,” she explains. “But when people do, they often say, ‘Oh, actually that was really helpful. I really enjoyed hearing that I’m not the only one that is struggling with this.’”

The most significant downfall of workshops is that they aren’t always accessible to everyone. Students may have class during those times, or may have troubles getting to campus. To combat this, counselling services is offering webinars, where students can log onto a platform and experience workshops from the comfort of their home.

While counselling services is trying to make professional help more accessible to students, the Students Association of Mount Royal (SAMRU) is doing their own work to raise awareness and advocacy. SAMRU is an autonomous organization out of Mount Royal, and is funded through student fees and charitable donations. Vice President of Student Affairs, Shayla Breen, understands how important it is to shed light on the issue of mental health.

“I think universities have a really unique opportunity to empower students to take control of their health and self advocate for what they need,” she says. “We need to be able to educate students.”

Some ways that SAMRU peer-to-peer groups raise awareness is by setting up Bell Let’s Talk Day and National Depression Screening Day booths on Main Street. Volunteers also operate the Pride Center, where LGBTQ2S+ people can access support more tailored to their needs.

But for students like Jordan, advocacy isn’t always enough.

“I feel that everybody talks about it, but there’s not really enough that’s done for it. Dropping in is great, but I think they should hire more counsellors.”

Hiring more counsellors not an option 

At the end of the day, the lack of counsellors boils down to a lack of funding.

“I would love for the university to be able to look at a system of long-term counselling, but looking at it from a budgetary lens, we’re just not able to provide that support,” explains Breen. “I’d like to see an increased amount of funding so we can increase the capacity of counsellors we have on campus so that the wait times are lower.”

“We would love to hire more counsellors,” agrees Knapik. “That would be great, but there are limited resources, and we are actually quite well funded compared to other universities. So, it’s more about how to do the best with the resources that we have.”

Although it isn’t a perfect system, Jordan doesn’t want her story to discourage others from reaching out.

“Don’t be afraid to get help,” she urges. “It’s really hard to tell people about it, and I felt really ashamed and really broken when I had to have help, but it was probably the best decision I ever made.”

Editor: Megan Atkins-Baker | matkins-baker@cjournal.ca

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