Lack of space limits progress

Despite advancements on mental health initiatives, LaSalle impedes growth of Queen’s counselling services

Queen’s has made progress on several recommendations made in 2012.
Queen’s has made progress on several recommendations made in 2012.
Credit: 
Illustration by Michaella Fortune

Despite a Queen’s-wide focus on mental health, the University’s counselling services still lack the infrastructure they need.

On Nov. 28, 2012, Queen’s released the 2012 Report of the Principal’s Commission on Mental Health (PCMH). The report identified major areas of concern for Queen’s and laid out 116 recommendations for improving mental health on campus.

Principal Daniel Woolf commissioned the report in 2011 after the deaths of six students in 2010 and 2011. Three of the deaths were confirmed to be suicides.

The Report of the PCMH outlined four “pillars” of addressing mental health issues: promoting a healthy community, easing transitions between high school and university, encouraging help-seeking behaviour and expanding mental health services.

LaSalle — the building that houses Health, Counselling and Disability Services (HCDS) — is at capacity and can’t support additional staff, according to HCDS Director Mike Condra.

HCDS currently has two part-time psychiatrists and one general practitioner psychotherapist on staff, in addition to 10 full-time counselling positions and six casual counsellors, who work part-time or irregular hours depending on demand.

Condra told the Journal via email that the physical space is the most significant challenge for creating an accessible service.

“The older LaSalle Building, where the Counselling Service is currently located, and its layout can create barriers to access for some students. The quantity of space available is insufficient,” he said.

Limited space restricts growth, Condra said, while the way the building is constructed makes changing the space “very expensive”.

However, he said the University has added new counsellors by embedding them into different faculties and buildings on campus, such as the John Deutsch University Centre (JDUC).

The university’s eight embedded counsellors include two in residences and one each in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of Graduate Studies (SGS), the Faculty of Education, the School of Medicine, Queen’s School of Business and the JDUC.

Four of the counsellors — one in residences and those in the Faculty of Engineering, SGS and Faculty of Education — were added last year.

“The University is currently evaluating how embedded counsellors in faculty and student-focused buildings (JDUC, Residences) across campus can promote access to service,” Condra said.

The University is in the planning stages of a larger Student Wellness Centre, he said, which will be located in the Physical Education Centre (PEC).

The implementation of a Student Wellness Centre was one of the recommendations the PCMH made in 2012. Since the report was released, the University has charged the Provost’s Advisory Committee on Mental Health with coordinating the implementation of recommendations and reporting on their progress.

The Provost’s Advisory Committee on Mental Health includes representatives from HCDS, Student Affairs, the AMS, the SGPS and Queen’s faculty.

Deputy Provost Laeeque Daneshmend — the delegate for Provost and Vice-Principal Alan Harrison on the committee — was unable to comment by deadline.

Some of the PCMH report’s recommendations — such as establishing an Academic Advisory Committee and initiatives like Q-Success — have already been implemented.

Q-Success is an academic transition program for first-year students, for which upper-year mentors and Queen’s staff run educational sessions throughout the year. The initiative was expanded this year to serve 300 students instead of the 100 students it served in 2013-14.

Other recommendations, like the creation of an Exam Centre and consultations on exam scheduling, won’t be implemented until the 2015-16 school year, according to a report released in June by the Provost’s Advisory Committee.

The Exam Centre, according to the original PCMH report, will serve as a venue for all exams, tests and midterms. The report stated that this would “normalize accommodations and ease the resource-intensive burden on individual professors and departments of finding space, time and proctors”.

The last goal that will be implemented — increasing the number of full-time psychiatrists at HCDS to three — won’t be completed until the 2016-17 school year, according to the Provost’s Advisory Committee’s June report.

Student representation on the committee includes Rector Mike Young and AMS Vice-President of University Affairs Philip Lloyd.

According to Young, most of the report’s goals will be completed by the end of the 2015-16 school year. He said this time period allows the group to focus on perfecting mental health protocols.

“It’s better to roll something out in 2015 or 2016 and do it right so it’s here for years, instead of rolling it out now and have to fix it as we go,” said Young, ConEd ’15.

Young said financial considerations have also made expanding student services more difficult, since a tight budget has meant reduced funding for student services.

“Our options this year were to increase enrolment and maintain our budget, or sustain enrolment and have a reduced budget for student services. So either have more students need help and maintain your funding, or maintain the number of students and reduce your funding. So it’s a lose-lose situation,” he said.

The University needs to “diversify its revenue” and depend less on enrolment to receive government funding, he said, or the problem will continue.

Young has focused on mental health since his campaign for rector last winter, when he advocated for an increase in faculty-specific counsellors. He said he’s currently aiming to create a “Mental Health Award” for students who work on mental health issues.

He said the award could go to students who helped other students in crisis, or who started a mental health initiative. Young added that he’d gather student feedback on the award before finalizing any details.

While the original PCMH report recommended that the university consider a 13-week semester instead of the current 12-week model, Young said he’d prefer to see an additional three- or four-day weekend during the first semester instead.

“That’s what I would push for, rather than a fundamental restructuring of our schedule,” he said, noting that implementing a 13-week semester would affect orientation week schedules and exam scheduling.

It’s also important to have professors coordinate syllabi to avoid overwhelming students with multiple assignments scheduled at the same time, Young said.

“We need to get to the root causes of [mental health] issues, and in the interim look at things like a long weekend to mitigate some of the short-term issues,” he said.

The infrastructure of the AMS Peer Support Centre (PSC) has improved since 2012, Young said. According to PSC Director Cara Chen, usage of the PSC has remained steady in the last two years, although the physical space has been made more accessible through a renovation this year.

The PSC is located in Room 34 of the JDUC. Before it gained an administrative office in 2012 — located in Room 40 of the JDUC — the PSC had been a single room.

Despite this measure, Young said the inadequate space allotted to HCDS is still a major concern.

“There are more students and more need than that centre at this point can take,” he said. “That’s not necessarily a failure of anyone at that centre itself. They need more space and they need more money.”

The Report of the PCMH recommended a review of HCDS and its services.

Debbie Bruckner, the director of the Students’ Union Wellness Centre at the University of Calgary, and David McMurray, vice-president of Student Affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University, conducted the review on Oct. 28 and 29. They met with students and staff and held open meetings for students and staff in Ban Righ Hall and the JDUC.

The review’s findings haven’t yet been released, but they will be in the coming weeks, according to Queen’s Student Affairs website.

The HCDS conducted a National College Health Assessment (NCHA) survey in 2013, which they’ll use again this year “as part of our prioritization and decision-making processes”, according to the Provost’s Advisory Committee’s June report.

The 2013 survey, which polled 1,241 Queen’s students, found that 91.7 per cent of respondents reported feeling overwhelmed in the previous 12 months. It also found that 60.4 per cent felt overwhelming anxiety, 38.4 per cent had felt “so depressed it was difficult to function” and 10 per cent seriously considered suicide.

Condra, the director of HCDS, told the Journal in September that HCDS considers the sample to be of “a sufficient size to draw conclusions about the entire student population”.

Holly Mathias, one of the co-chairs of the Mental Health Awareness Committee (MHAC), said Queen’s needs to focus more on its upper-year students.

MHAC runs events throughout campus to raise awareness about mental health issues and reduce the stigma around mental illness, according to Mathias, ArtSci ’16.

While the University has many supports for first-years, especially in residence, she said, there aren’t enough in place for upper-years.

“Usually upper-years fall through the cracks, so we’re looking at educating fourth-years who may not have been interested or paid attention to mental health issues in their first year,” Mathias said.

Stigma around mental health has decreased in recent years, she said. She’s seen more students apply to positions in mental health groups, volunteer for initiatives and attend mental health events on campus than they did two years ago.

“If stigma is [measured] in the way of people speaking out and talking about mental health and illness,” Mathias said, “then it has decreased since my first year here.”

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