Students suffer as mental health services fail to meet the mark

This is about people’s lives. Alex Iby via Unsplash

Wellness Wednesdays won’t cut it

Since March 2020, we have had to re-evaluate a lot of things about what is and is not working in our society. With all the stress and anxiety in the world around us, one thing that has become clear is that high quality, accessible, and affordable mental health services are an essential need. This is all the more pertinent on campuses, where the transition to online classes, changed expectations, and the lack of social opportunities are particularly taxing on everyone.

We wanted to find out options for mental health services on campus here at the University of Regina, as well as how existing services are perceived by the student body. With the recent opening of the new Student Wellness Centre, we also wanted to find out which mental health services they would be offering and how these would complement those already being provided by Counselling Services at the Riddell Centre.

We contacted Jenny Keller, Manager at Counselling Services to find out about the services provided by their unit and how students can go about accessing them. Keller informed us that currently there are two major options to meet student needs. In the Time-Limited Consult approach, students are able to get a single 30-minute consultation with the student support coordinator or a registered psychologist, either in person or virtually. This option is designed to help students formulate a plan and identify resources to assist with their current mental health concerns. In the E-Counselling model, students are able to have scheduled 50-minute therapy appointments with a Registered Psychologist, facilitated virtually. The number and frequency of appointments are determined based on therapy progress and goals. On their website there is information on how to request services, as well as a link to the Mental Wellness Hub providing information on all services available to students.

At present, there are five psychologists and one student support coordinator working with Counselling Services. Keller informed that there can be over 2000 consultation sessions with students in one semester. Appointments are available for free to all current U of R students, regardless of their registration status in a given semester.

We also contacted the recently opened Student Wellness Centre (SWC), and were informed that the SWC is working together with Counselling Services, and the latter has a full list of all mental health services on campus. No information was provided on what services the SWC is able to provide on top of those already offered by Counselling Services.

We also spoke to several current and former students on their experiences attempting to access resources, and received mixed responses. It appears that most students have either had a negative experience or found the services being offered to be inadequate for their needs. Some have consequently had to seek out more expensive alternatives off campus.

Katie, who accessed Counselling Services on campus on two separate occasions during her time at the university, said that both times there was a wait of around two weeks. On a couple of occasions, her appointments were cancelled with less than an hour’s notice, or she showed up for her appointment and found that her counsellor was not in. Katie also feels her first counsellor completely missed the signs of her being in an abusive relationship, while the other one suggested that given the issues in some of her relationships, perhaps she was the problematic one, without analyzing further.

Nadine Steinley also had struggles with the long wait times in their first year, and felt that this came in the way of successfully meeting their needs. Steinley mentions that they were able to book an appointment online easily, but initially had some trouble navigating the website, and eventually stopped booking appointments for a number of reasons. For one, Steinley felt that there was an expectation to meet for five to six sessions and then resolve that no further sessions are necessary. “It always makes me feel like therapy is bad and for those who are really mentally ill, ignoring the fact that therapy is something everyone should always have ongoing for maintenance,” they added. Another reason they stopped going was that there was a lack of queer and/or female therapists, and also that the therapist they were seeing was a graduate student at the time and had not finished their program.

Harvey Aurelien Michael, a U of R alumni, had accessed counselling services four years ago. While they felt the service was easy to access, it did not meet their needs. They went on to say, “The counsellor seemed ill-equipped to deal with a student who was having anything more than general anxiety. When I saw her, I gave her a summary of what I was struggling with, but was not offered anything else like coping mechanisms, any strategies, or anything. Maybe the counsellors are over-extended themselves, more staff would probably help alleviate that strain?” Like Steinley, Michael also added that the counsellor they saw was not prepared to deal with 2SLGBTQ+ issues.

Hila Smith accessed mental health services on campus in the Fall of 2019, after a serious incident in her personal life. In that instance, she was actually able to quickly see a counsellor, and found the experience helpful. However, later that same semester, she was hoping to get more regular appointments in order to address ongoing mental health concerns for which she had been diagnosed. During her first appointment in this phase, Smith felt that the counsellor was very dismissive of the legitimate medical concerns she detailed, and tried to convince her that she did not need ongoing help. Smith actually did stop after a couple more sessions because she had the distinct feeling that they were trying to get her off the regular roster as soon as possible. She does add, however, that she went back a few more times, always in response to some moment of crisis. Smith feels they were much more equipped to help in a crisis-type situation than to help with ongoing mental health issues. “If the counselling centre wanted to be a crisis-only service, that would be fine. I mean, it wouldn’t be great – students need more mental health services than that – but it would be a legitimate approach. But I think they bill themselves as being more full-service than that, and in my experience, it’s a case of over-promising and way under-delivering,” says Smith.

Another student, who wishes to stay anonymous, accessed counselling services on campus in 2018-19, and found it fairly easy to access. However, they felt that the frequency of sessions was not adequate, often being able to meet less than once a month. “It didn’t really meet my needs, but I also wasn’t in a financial position to pay $200 out of pocket for something privately owned,” they said, going on to add: “Just feels that with all the emphasis that the U of R puts on mental health/wellness, it’s all talk and no action. Our tuition goes to fund those kinds of services, but also with the fact that a lot of our campus buildings are falling apart, I just have to wonder where the money’s going and why it’s not being invested in students or the campus?”

Taylor Balfour, another of U of R’s alumni, had the following to say: “In 2019, within the first few days after my little sister’s death, I attempted to access university counselling. After crying through the entirety of my first appointment, I was asked if I actually needed a second appointment. I said yes and insisted that I booked a follow up appointment for a few days after her funeral. When my second appointment arrived, my counsellor told me that I didn’t need to come in for a second appointment and didn’t book me further. I needed to access outside counselling, all paid for out of my own pocket. I was later diagnosed with PTSD in response to her death, as she was tragically found dead suddenly at the age of 18. Not only did the university counselling fail me, but it placed me in a state of danger, without support, during one of the worst periods of my life. If the University of Regina is unable to provide accurate counselling services to their students, I would suggest they either outsource their counselling, suggest other options that students can access, or change their system, massively.”

As evidenced by most of these firsthand experiences, counselling service on campus has left much to be desired. While many of the students concede that the services offered more than met their needs for acute crisis management, clearly ongoing help has not been adequately provided for many. As many conjecture, perhaps understaffing is the root cause for most of the issues students have reported. It remains to be seen whether the new Student Wellness Centre can bring some positive impact in this regard.


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