Meeting the demands of our mental health

Health, Counselling and Disability Services Director Mike Condra says the current counselling program accomodates students well, but more employees and expansions of certain programs are needed

HCDS Director Mike Condra in front of the La Salle Building, where students can speak with counsellors on a triage basis. Counsellors see an average of 60 to 70 students per day collectively and six per day individually.
HCDS Director Mike Condra in front of the La Salle Building, where students can speak with counsellors on a triage basis. Counsellors see an average of 60 to 70 students per day collectively and six per day individually.

In any given academic year, one in 10 Queen’s students will seek counselling through Health, Counselling and Disability Services (HCDS) at the La Salle building on Stuart St. That’s 1,800 students from the months of September to April, with spikes during the week before exams.

HCDS Director Mike Condra said only eight out of the 16 counsellors at HCDS are full time. The rest only work during peak times. Three of them are psychologists, the rest have masters degrees in either psychology, counselling, social work or education.

On average, the counsellors see about 60 to 70 students per day collectively and a maximum of six per day individually. It’s easy to see how waiting lists can emerge from this type of turnover.

Condra said in order to deal with the volume of visitors, counselling operates with a triage system.

“If we see that you have been overwhelmed for weeks, you get in fast and you see a crisis counsellor. Some students, however, because of the nature of the difficulty, will get an appointment in a couple of weeks,” he said. “We give them a number to contact if they have difficulty in the mean time.” Condra said waiting lists have always been a challenge for HCDS.

“We do our best, and I think it’s fair to say that we do a pretty good job in accommodating students pretty quickly. Someone can see students the same day or the next day for a brief interview. Relative to other settings, maybe at the hospital, the wait would be much longer than it is here,” he said.

Condra praised the University, especially the Dean of Student Affairs Jason Laker, for giving high priority to the counselling service at HCDS.

“I am hopeful that the University will continue to recognize the counselling service is a mission critical function. In order to support the academic mission, you need to support this mission. I am hopeful that the University will continue this and we will be protected from big budget cuts,” he said.

HCDS has seen some budget cuts and constraints on expansion, though. HCDS had a six per cent budget cut last year, but the dean’s office found a way to provide some funding to effectively eliminate the cut for that year.

“We would always love more staff. We are part of the University and have to deal with shortages just like ArtSci or other faculties might. It would be especially helpful to have more outreach counsellors in the residence system,” Condra said.

Although almost all counselling takes place inside La Salle, Fiona Gordon has recently been introduced as a counsellor for Queen’s residences. Her office is located in Victoria Hall and is part of the outreach program which is meant to be a liaison between HCDS and Main Campus Residence Council (MCRC) staff. They have an office inside the residences and seek to provide first-year students with education on issues like depression, loneliness and stress reduction.

Condra said more counsellors at HCDS would be a welcome addition, as first years are an especially vulnerable group.

“The change in setting always leads to first years getting overwhelmed. A lot of them say that they are neither sad nor happy, just overwhelmed. Still, whether it’s sadness or feeling overwhelmed, outreach is there for them and it would be nice if we could have more counsellors doing it,” he said.

Chuck Vitere, a senior psychologist at HCDS, said the current system suffices for what students need.

“The triage system we have now is adequate in dealing with demand,” he said. “I mean, to see all patients the same day they arrive is just impossible in the real world.”

Vitere, who completed his masters and then PhD in psychology at Queen’s in 1986, has worked at HCDS since 1984. He said many students use the service and the University recognizes its importance.

Queen’s Student Affairs is hosting a series of lectures today and tomorrow run by Mental Health First Aid Canada and delivered by Condra and Beth Doxsee from HCDS. The 12-hour course is given to Student Affairs staff, various Queen’s faculty members and members of the community. The program aims to improve mental health literacy and provide people with skills and knowledge to better manage mental health problems experienced by themselves and others.

With increased support from the administration and programs like Mental Health First Aid, Vitere said the service is more likely to be used.

“We live in a culture where people are reluctant to talk or acknowledge that they have difficulty. However as the service grows and the University puts more funding into this type of activity on campus, as they have with the Mental Health First Aid program, we will see and are already seeing a process of de-stigmatization.”

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