February 25, 2017

Campus mental health support neglects long-term issues

Hiring more counsellors and revitalizing the PEC won't alleviate all the problems that persist with mental health services at Queen's

Short-term counselling methods leave holes in the support offered to Queen's students, says Dana Mitchell.

Queen’s counselling services are making strides to accommodate more students but fails to solve issues surrounding the short-term approach that counsellors tend to take.

During a challenging time last year, I decided to reach out to Queen’s counselling services for support. I considered my problems to be immediate even though I wasn’t experiencing an emergency, however I was told that I needed to wait two weeks in order to see a counsellor. 

By the time I met someone in person, the worst of my immediate problem had passed. When I tried to discuss deeper issues with my counsellor, I was met with an array of worksheets and quick solutions that only touched on the surface of my challenges. I felt like these methods undermined the complexities of my problems and didn’t address them effectively.

Being told that my struggles should fit neatly into pre-made handouts or that breathing exercises can fix my anxieties not only ignores the root of personal issues, but leaves a lot of the work up to patients to develop on their own time.

Being told that my struggles should fit neatly into pre-made handouts or that breathing exercises can fix my anxieties not only ignores the root of personal issues, but leaves a lot of the work up to patients to develop on their own time. Flaws like these can’t be fixed by simply hiring more staff, but require a significant change in the structure of mental health services.

After three sessions, I was referred to a variety of resources both on and off campus for further support. While I found it helpful to be given specific names and organizations that offered longer-term services, I didn’t feel comfortable reaching out to any of them.

Mental health services on campus can provide a great opportunity for students to develop cognitive skills and receive support throughout the school year. But while these counselling services can be beneficial to work through some issues, the short-term focus of campus resources can open up difficult subjects that may not be given the time to be properly resolved. With a high demand for counselling on campus, it’s no surprise that unless under specific circumstances, students are limited to short-term services.

It’s important that the counselling services at Queen’s can accommodate as many students as possible, however, the short-term approach can leave students feeling that they’ve only touched on surface-level problems that aren’t completely addressed.

...the short-term approach can leave students feeling that they’ve only touched on surface-level problems that aren’t completely addressed.

Reaching out for help can be a difficult step, especially for those that are already living with mental illness. With resources in the community, factors like cost and proximity can also make this task seem more challenging.

The concept of opening up to someone about personal struggles is never easy, but it can be especially difficult to spend time with a professional at Queen’s only to start over again with another counsellor in the community.

After my experience with Queen’s counselling services, I found myself asking, what was the point?

According to Queen’s Communications, the short-term model of counselling services on campus is used to meet the “student demand for service.”

There is no official maximum number of sessions per semester, however, with such a high demand it’s no surprise that the general focus for the majority of students is short-term aid.

A recent study featured in a CBC article in September found that 65 per cent of students attending Ontario colleges and universities had experienced overwhelming anxiety in 2015, and 46 per cent had felt so depressed that it was difficult to function. These numbers had increased significantly from a previous study conducted in 2013.

With the increased awareness and demand for mental health services, these resources have to be able to expand and change to meet growing needs. This is especially important on university campuses because students are continually faced with stress and changing circumstances. If students aren’t receiving the proper help and don’t feel comfortable reaching out for assistance, it can be hard to have a positive and beneficial university experience, let alone an enjoyable one.

If students aren’t receiving the proper help and don’t feel comfortable reaching out for assistance, it can be hard to have a positive and beneficial university experience, let alone an enjoyable one.

Although it’s very important that Queen’s counselling services can accommodate as many students as possible, it can’t be assumed that a focus on short-term resources is enough. For those, like myself, who aren't always facing immediate issues, it can feel as though this model excludes you from receiving professional help.

It isn’t just about hiring more counsellors to meet demand, but about changing the system as a whole.

With renovations underway at the PEC, Queen’s will soon have a new and expanded Wellness Centre. In a Queen’s Gazette article from last February former Provost and Vice Principal (Academic) Alan Harrison promised that the new Wellness Centre will provide “increased capacity and flexibility to meet the rising demand across the spectrum of wellness services.”

While revitalizing a building and hiring more counselling staff can help alleviate some concerns such as long wait times, it fails to address the flaws in the overall structure of the system. It doesn’t make a difference how many students are able to receive counselling if the sessions can’t produce lasting or helpful results.

The short-term model prioritizes emergency cases, which is crucial but can also overshadow the needs of people who require everyday support. It can also feel like once you’re no longer facing an immediate issue, your mental health is no longer considered important enough to receive professional help on campus.

There may not be an immediate solution to the short-term focus of counselling services on campus but acknowledging the harm it poses is a good first step.

Mental health and wellness is finally receiving the attention it deserves, but this progress can’t be fully celebrated without the establishment of better support resources that cater to all struggling individuals. 

Dana Mitchell is a second-year English major. 

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