Barriers abound for students accessing mental health care on campus

The Journal spoke to eight students about their experience seeking mental health care from Student Wellness Services

Students report extremely long wait times when accessing mental health appointments at Student Wellness Services.
Credit: 
Illustration by Ashley Rhamey

This article talks about mental health and may be triggering for some readers.

Home to Student Wellness Services, the La Salle building sits at the very bottom of Queen’s campus, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of student life. 

La Salle is home to Health, Counselling and Accessibility Services for Queen’s Students, which acts as short-term health care for students on campus. The counselling service provided by Student Wellness Services (SWS) describes one of their services as “brief therapy” and iterates they aren’t properly equipped to deal with long-term issues due to the “complexity and history” these cases might present. 

The reality, however, is that students struggling with their mental health aren’t a fringe group. 

According to a study from Cornell psychologist Janis Whitlock, 7.5 per cent of students who begin university with no mental health issues will develop some symptoms over the course of their academic career. Furthermore, a 2013-2016 study done on 25,164 Canadian university students revealed a 50 per cent increase in anxiety, a 47 per cent increase in depression and a striking 47 per cent increase in suicide attempts. 

According to the 2017 National College Health Assessment, with data from 41 Canadian post-secondary institutions, 13 per cent of students had “seriously considered suicide.”

According to the 2017 National College Health Assessment, with data from 41 Canadian post-secondary institutions, 13 per cent of students had “seriously considered suicide.” Graphic by Alex Palermo

In a 2012 Maclean’s article that addressed the suicides of four male Queen’s students between 2010 and 2011, Principal Daniel Woolf said, “[w]e are not a treatment facility … That said, we do have a caring and nurturing role over the young people that come to us.”

According to their website, the counselling program at SWS has a particular focus on resolving a student’s “personal difficulties, dealing with crises and distressing situations.” Referrals are frequently made for students seeking long-term mental health care to professionals in the community. 

While demand for all services provided by SWS continues to grow, the demand for counselling and other mental health-related appointments has risen to a greater extent than the services provided. According to Jennifer Dodds, executive director of Student Wellness Services, last year the team provided nearly 18,000 mental health appointments. The number is expected to exceed that this year. 

This is a significant increase from the 2014-2015 school year where less than 10,000 such appointments were provided. 

According to the 2017 National College Health Assessment, with data from 41 Canadian post-secondary institutions, 13 per cent of students had “seriously considered suicide.”

In spite of the rapid growth of the program and demand for mental health resources, according to an external review of SWS in 2015, “the demand for individual counselling resources may always exceed capacity.” 

 “SWS has continued to grow in size and in programs,” Dodds said to The Journal via email. “We have also increased the number of counselling and psychiatry appointments available and also the options for group programming and group support.”

In terms of wait times, Dodds said non-crisis first appointments with a physician or counsellor are scheduled within around two weeks. According to The American Mental Wellness Association, crisis denotes a time of intense difficulty, struggle or danger. SWS considers a ‘crisis’ situation to be one where a person is an active danger to themselves or to others.  

According to Dodds, there are other mental health resources on campus that are under-utilized. 

“Students may not be aware of the availability of groups and workshops,” she said. “[Students] can also attend drop-in groups in between appointments or while waiting for a first appointment.”

***

While the number of appointments available to students has increased, attitudes among the student body reflect a broken system wherein a serious disconnect between administration and student needs exists.

To learn more about what the student body had to say, members of The Journal posted on social media to learn how students access mental health care on campus. Eight students were chosen to share their stories and were given anonymity to protect their identities.

When Anita* felt her depression was cycling out of control, she tried to make an appointment to see a psychiatrist at SWS. She had been seeing a counsellor at La Salle for two months, but when she called to make the change, Anita was told she could only be referred to a psychiatrist if she first saw a family doctor at the clinic. 

“I felt like there was no where I could go and be heard when I said, ‘I need help,” Anita said of her phone call with SWS. “I was told that I’d have to wait two weeks before even seeing a family doctor.” 

When Anita researched her predicament on the SWS homepage, she saw that they described their own psychiatric services as limited. As a result, students could expect to wait weeks before they can see a doctor about their mental health.  

“I felt like there was no where I could go and be heard when I said, ‘I need help.” — Anita

According to Dodds, psychiatric appointments require a referral from a family physician and are scheduled for four to six weeks down the line. This wait period, she adds, is much smaller than for psychiatrists in the Kingston community.

“Either you are classified as an emergency case that needs to go to the hospital or you’re non-urgent and you can expect to wait weeks for help.” Anita said. “You can be having a crisis but unless you’re suicidal, no one will give you the time of day.” 

According to Anita, the missing piece of SWS is a place where students can just walk in the door, drop their bag, say they need help and then receive it. “If they made a space like that for students and the doors were overflowing, then what does that mean? Make the place bigger.”

Anita reiterated that the system is not equipped to handle even the acute cases that need immediate attention, “The reality is that you can’t schedule a mental breakdown. Bad days just happen.”

***

When Sarah felt her mental health take a steep decline, she called SWS right away. 

She was able to book an emergency appointment with a PhD student for the following day. “It was either that or an occupational therapist, no licensed counsellors were available for about a week for emergency appointments,” Sarah said via Facebook messenger with The Journal

She later decided to continue her appointments with the PhD student at SWS for counselling on a weekly basis because she was told a psychologist at the clinic would only be able to see her once every one or two months. 

“Being with a PhD student has its ups and downs,” Sarah said, “I know [they’re] still new in the field and doesn’t have much experience. So, while there’s uncertainty about some aspects, I’m certainly happy with what I receive.”

Three students, including Sarah, said there’s actually a walk-in psychologist available at SWS, “[b]ut it’s almost like a secret because [you aren’t] given any information on it from Health Services.”

“[My experience] has been really good, but I think it will really benefit Queen’s to have the program grow when it’s moved to the new building,” Sarah added.

***

While some students struggle to get the help they need from SWS, others have heard such discouraging stories about the service that they haven’t even tried to book an appointment. 

When Callie* felt her anxiety and stress get out of control around exam time, she initially considered contacting SWS. While she often experiences significant distress during exams — and feels anxious most of the time — she has yet to call.

“It seems like resources are underfunded and understaffed, [and they are] attempting to respond to both regular and emergency appointments with the same staff,” Callie said in an interview with The Journal. “So many people with mental illnesses require stability, especially in their treatment or management, it seems absurd to me that the school can’t provide guaranteed appointments to students.” 

Callie explained her main reason for not making an appointment was because she felt the stress of having it cancelled would make her spiral out of control. “Even though I have struggled in the past with managing stress I haven’t been able to talk to somebody because, from what I’ve heard, it’s more trouble than it’s worth.”

Even though I have struggled in the past with managing stress I haven’t been able to talk to somebody because, from what I’ve heard, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. — Callie

***

After a three-year battle with Major Depressive Disorder, Jack* decided to seek counselling on campus through Student Wellness Services.

According to Jack, the counsellor he met with was late and spent minimal time going over his intake form before asking about a prior diagnosis from his physician.

“The next thing he said, direct quote, was ‘Hmmm. I don’t really know where to go from here,’” Jack said via Facebook messenger with The Journal. “Then we spent the next 30 minutes [with] him asking me what I should do to help myself and writing it down.”

Jack said the session ended 20 minutes early. When he attempted to make an appointment with a different counsellor, he was told the wait time would be a month and a half. 

***

When Shea* was undergoing a difficult time last year battling depression and anxiety, he turned to Queen’s counselling services for help. He ended up only seeing a counsellor once through Queen’s because he was so disheartened from his experience. 

“When you’re opening up for the first time it’s discouraging to feel like you’re a burden on their busy schedule. I never received any follow up e-mails or anything. It was as if I didn’t matter to the counsellor even after opening up to her,” Shea said to The Journal via Facebook messenger. 

“So many feel like it’s a sign of weakness, failure or abnormality, when in reality, there are so many people that struggle with something at one time or another and it’s completely normal.”

“Mental health shouldn’t only be considered when you’re down … taking care of your mind is always important and I think everyone could benefit from seeing a psychologist to learn more about themselves and how their brain works so that they don’t ever have to experience serious depression or anxiety.”

So many feel like it’s a sign of weakness, failure or abnormality, when in reality, there are so many people that struggle with something at one time or another and it’s completely normal. — Shea

***

In her experience, Alexa* didn’t have any issues with mental health until this year. After a traumatic experience over the Christmas holidays and a serious panic attack when she returned to school, she decided she needed professional help. 

“I immediately called La Salle the second they opened the next morning,” Alexa said in an interview with The Journal. She was able to book an appointment for two and half weeks later “I was like ‘Okay, I understand they’re super busy, I’ll just rely on my friends and family a lot until I can see someone.’”

After struggling for two weeks, the day before her appointment Alexa received a call that told her it was cancelled and rebooked for three weeks later. “I was devastated and super angry, but thankfully [when] I woke up early the next day to call, they had a cancellation, and I got to see a counsellor.” 

But when Alexa made it to her appointment and finally opened up to the counsellor, she was disappointed with how her situation was handled. 

“My issue is very unique and I felt very alone because none of my friends could really relate or empathize,” Alexa said. “I even felt this counsellor was at a loss for words and didn’t know what to say to me.” 

The counsellor told Alexa they didn’t have “much training for dealing with trauma.” After two sessions, the counsellor thought Alexa was doing better and suggested she re-book for a month later. “He didn’t see that just because I was having a good day, [it] didn’t mean I was doing better.”

“Today I’m doing a lot better but honestly that’s no thanks to Queen’s. I love going [to Queen’s] but to be completely honest, I think the mental health support here is shameful.”

 I love going [to Queen’s] but to be completely honest, I think the mental health support here is shameful. — Alexa

“Especially since they encourage us to seek out help if we need it, but they don’t provide it. They need to understand that just because somebody isn’t a danger to themselves or others doesn’t mean they don’t seriously need help.”

***

Ellie* is a current patient at SWS that has had counselling and continues to see a physician on a regular basis to prescribe and adjust her medication as needed. However, she believes the wait times for appointments are unacceptably long. 

“There are definitely not enough people on staff, and it often times feels as though I’m not getting the individualized care I need.”

“They say that there are same-day appointments for students in crisis (aka actively suicidal), and I’ve been one of those students, but there are many other issues that are severe and require timely intervention that La Salle is not equipped to handle.” Ellie said, “There’s not enough staff and students aren’t in ‘enough’ crisis.”

At the end of the day, there’s a clear demand for increased access to mental health professionals on campus. Students that aren’t suicidal, but who are suffering greatly, are often left behind in the midst of it all. 

“Mental illness is not a contest and students should not have to meet a certain degree of suffering to merit the help they need.” Ellie said. 

“I don’t think they should be commended for meeting the bare minimum of requirements in terms of mental health care,” she continued. “There’s an ongoing mental health crisis among university students and Queen’s really needs to step it up if they want to be able to meet that need and priorities student’s health over their grades and high-class reputation.”

***

After losing her father, Violet* began to experience a loss of optimal functioning, increased anxiety and depressed feelings that left her thinking she was simply going through the motions of university life. 

After waiting several weeks to see a counsellor, Violet said their advice to simply exercise, and “just stop repressing her feelings,” made her realize that the counsellor wasn’t qualified enough to deal with her situation. 

“They said that I wasn’t missing school, I was handing in assignments … It wasn’t impacting my academics, so obviously it wasn’t impacting me enough,” Violet said, in an interview with The Journal

They said that I wasn’t missing school, I was handing in assignments … It wasn’t impacting my academics, so obviously it wasn’t impacting me enough. — Violet

Despite the fact that she couldn’t sleep for days at a time and her life outside of school was being severely neglected, the counsellor and physician Violet saw told her she was okay. “They thought they knew me better than I knew myself. They told me I was fine when I knew I wasn’t.”

***

“It is challenging to say where I see the SWS in 10 years. If you were to go back 10 years and look at Student Wellness Services at the time (which would have been called Health, Counselling and Disability Services).They would not have envisioned what we have today,” Rector Cam Yung said in an interview with The Journal

According to Yung, the SWS is looking to move to a new location in the Innovation and Wellness Centre (IWC) in the fall of 2018. The move could present the SWS with opportunities for more space, improved technology and as a result, a more accessible and effective service. 

“To say that increasing the capacity of health and counselling resources will be the only solution would not be correct. Though I believe that this is an important aspect, there is much more that we can consider,” Yung said. 

Yung also believes the student body should continue to advocate for a better experience when accessing services at SWS. 

“I believe that every Queen’s student should have the opportunity to access counselling, disability, and health services when the need arises,” he said. “Ultimately the goal should also be that each student who uses services in SWS leaves with a positive experience.”

 

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