Under new system, students compete for same-day counselling

Student Wellness Services’ booking process can complicate students’ access to care

Same-day appointment process is causing students further stress
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Amelie Mahrt-Smith, ArtSci ‘21, needed to talk to someone. She called seven times, on seven different days, trying to get a same-day appointment with a counsellor from Student Wellness 
Services (SWS). 
 
She started to get up early and call at 8 a.m. But by the time her call would get through, all same-day appointments were fully booked. 
 
In an interview with The Journal, Mahrt-Smith said the new booking system made her feel like she had been consistently shot down. “It took me a while to realize I had to call right at eight o’clock in the morning or there was no chance—even if it was 8:15 [a.m.], no chance,” she said.
 
By the fifth time she called, Mahrt-Smith was in crisis.
 
Last summer, SWS revamped their system in hopes of achieving “same-day access” to counselling services. Instead of pre-booking, students call in for a 30-minute same-day appointment. These “initial access” appointments can then be followed up by a pre-booked session at the counsellor’s discretion. 
 
The Journal spoke with 17 students via email, Facebook Messenger, and in person, to discuss the recent changes to the SWS counselling system. Of the 17, one respondent had no complaints. Mahrt-Smith was one of several who had concerns about how the new system affects students’ access to mental health care on campus.
 
According to students who spoke to The Journal, concerns arise about the stress of having to compete for same-day appointment times and the lack of security of pre-booked appointments. However, most saw the same-day appointment model as a step in the right direction, just not the final answer. 
 
“Students who have accessed the service have been very positive about the model as it allows them to see a counsellor for an initial appointment within 2-3 days, instead of waiting weeks,” Rina Gupta, director of counselling services at SWS, wrote in a statement to The Journal.
 
“This time last year, the term was completely booked; now we have multiple appointments available each day for students.”
 
The wait times aren’t the six weeks they were this time last year. According to students who spoke to The Journal, most said they were able to get an appointment on the same day they needed one and, overall, saw the change as positive.
 
But according to some, the new system has its faults. In interviews, students reported waiting more than three days for “same-day access,” and trying to access those appointments was causing those in vulnerable positions further stress.
 
“It seems like a good idea when you haven’t actually used [the system],” said Mahrt-Smith. “But after going through it, it didn’t feel helpful—it made me feel worse about my own situation and trying to get help because I was constantly being told no.”
 
“Previously, even if you had to wait several weeks for an appointment, at least you had the security of knowing that you had an appointment instead of just having to race for it.”
 
According to SWS, each day, there are an average of 35 same-day slots available. But this number can vary depending on counsellors’ schedules. There are currently 14 counsellors taking same-day appointments. 
 
SWS does offer at least 10 crisis appointments per day, so that if students can’t get a same-day booking and are in crisis, they can still access the service.
 
While Mahrt-Smith could recognize she was getting close to being in crisis, she didn’t want to use a crisis appointment. She felt she wasn’t in immediate danger and thought someone else could need the appointment more.
 
“Nobody really tells you what a crisis is,” she said. “I don’t want to take that away from somebody else, even though I feel like I might really need this, so I’ve never really felt comfortable doing that.”
 
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Mahrt-Smith isn’t alone in waiting more than a week to access care some students were able to get same-day. 
 
Andrea Włodarczyk, ArtSci ‘21, also has concerns about how quickly appointments fill up.
In an interview, she told The Journal she didn’t understand how the service could be fully booked within one minute of it opening in the morning.  Włodarczyk said waking up and calling, only to be declined, further impacts her mental health.
 
However, most of the time Włodarczyk calls, she sees someone day-of, just not her regular counsellor. And the new system means she hasn’t had to use crisis counselling at all this year.
 
She sees the new system as a positive change, but she doesn’t see it as an accountable system. Włodarczyk wants to know how SWS is keeping track of wait times when there’s no “wait list” for same-day appointments. 
 
According to Gupta, “to evaluate the new hybrid service model, [SWS is] tracking daily appointments, calls, student satisfaction and feedback, and counsellor input.” 
 
Włodarczyk was also concerned about the 30-minute slot times. She said a half hour, most of the time, isn’t long enough to realistically address a student’s issue.
 
Savannah De Franco, ArtSci ‘21, shared this concern. She likened the 30-minute appointment time to “herding cattle.” For De Franco, the new system compromises the quality of sessions if each appointment is being limited to half-hour slots. 
 
Both De Franco and Włodarczyk agree the University should be doing more for students’ mental health. Włodarczyk said studying creates an environment where mental health issues arise, and the University should acknowledge their role in this. 
 
“If you want to be a part of students’ success, you also have to be part of helping them through those issues,” she said.
 
Mitchell Hall is part of Włodarczyk’s frustration because the new building hasn’t had an impact on her experience with SWS. She feels the University prioritized its construction over meeting the demand for mental health care. 
 
She would rather have seen funds diverted from the new building to improving SWS.
 
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Overwhelmingly, the students who spoke with The Journal said they want the University to hire more counsellors. However, the improvements have made a substantial difference to those students’ experiences. 
 
The ratio of counsellors to students in need is not going to improve over time and the demand is only increasing
 
According to Gupta, the University has established 10 additional counselling positions since 2014, but SWS doesn’t think more counsellors alone can meet the demand. The service wants to expand their options so students have multiple access points for mental health care.
 
The new system has banished the six-week-long wait times for appointments, but some students are still not getting help when they need it.
 
Mahrt-Smith said she was aware there are services other than SWS, but feels she doesn’t know where else to go. For her, the only place she can learn about other resources is from SWS—so accessing other, less visible, on-campus and community services still require her to go through SWS counselling.
 
Her experience with SWS over the past few years has only made her realize how many students on campus are really in need of help. 
 

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