Psychological services swept under rug

Crucial services like counselling not a priority in Western's best student experience

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Counselling session

Photo courtesy of Student Development Services

Western may tout itself as “Canada’s best student experience,” but students like Ben Gordon are left behind when it comes to mental health issues.

Lucky for Gordon, a 2006 Richard Ivey School of Business graduate, his roommate Kevin was there for him throughout his depression.

“He was kind of like my rock,” Gordon said.

But some students at Western are not so fortunate.

Over the past 20 years, while Western’s student population has steadily increased, the number of full-time staff at Student Development Services’ psychological services has gone down.

The International Association of Counselling Services recommends a student to staff ratio of 1,000-1,500 to one; Western’s ratio is 2,610 to one.

Physical health services have kept up with the changes, but mental care seems to have been swept under the rug.

“It’s equally debilitating as compared to a physical illness,” Gordon said. “I think the fact that for 20 years, they haven’t given any [more] money, it really promotes that stigma that mental health is something you can push in the corner.”

While the waitlists are growing rapidly, more and more students suffering from mental health issues are left out in the cold.

In 2001-02, the waiting list for counselling had an average of 40 students. Last school year, it had grown to approximately 200 names.

Gordon felt the effects of the disintegrating service last year when he sought out help for his depression. “There really wasn’t much support. There wasn’t any follow-up or anything,” he recalled.

Dr. Gail Hutchinson, director of SDS, called for help with the lack of funding.

“You may never be able to service all the needs of a population this size, but you want it at a level that feels adequate, but it’s not there right now,” she explained.

Because of the limited staff, crisis situations are taking up time that could be devoted to ongoing treatment patients. For example, one student in crisis needed six and half hours of counselling time in two weeks.

This year’s new $500 grant for off-campus counselling has helped, but Hutchinson said Western should provide support as well.

“[The grant] is another option ... it’s just we’d like to provide the level of service that seems reasonable,” Hutchinson said.

Dr. Roma Harris, vice-provost academic programs and students, does not think Western should be responsible for long-term treatment.

“You need to take a look at what the role is of university-based counselling services. One is to respond to emergencies. And the other is to provide support to students ... because they have short-term personal challenges,” she explained.

Harris thinks other types of counselling placed a heavy burden on the university.

“I am confident that we meet our responsibilities in providing an emergency response,” she said, adding rather than dealing with long-term mental health issues on campus, students should be treated through support systems in the broader community.

Hutchinson added serious or chronic problems cannot be sent into the community since treatment centres offer limited services and wait lists are long.

Gordon disagreed: “We should be finding ways to not have to be in a crisis counselling mode.”

The future for psychological services does not appear promising.

Part of Western’s strategic plan Engaging the Future includes expanding the graduate student cohort and increasing the number of graduate students who complete their program.

However, for a growing demographic that represented 10 per cent of the clientele at psychological services in 2005-06 and used 16.3 per cent of all therapy sessions, there has been no increase in funding for mental health services.

Co-ordinator of graduate student recruitment and retention Clare Tattersall worried about the potential effects of this conflict.

“There’s a lot of graduate students that do rely on and need that service ... They’re working in a more isolated situation, so they may not have the same sort of social support that undergraduates may have,” she explained.

According to Tattersall, the majority of students who drop out of their programs do it because of family demands or personal conflicts and not academic problems.

A survey conducted by SDS found 87 per cent of students reported psychological services as moderately or very important in helping improve or maintain grades.

Harris did not think a growing graduate body would be a problem.

“The university is not growing at a huge pace, because we’re controlling the undergraduate student body ... what we will need to do is adjust the way we deliver the service.”

No official plans have been outlined yet, but Western is looking at ways to find additional revenue for psychological services.

“We’ve identified it as the top priority in terms of need,” Harris stated.

According to Hutchinson, the university has shown a genuine concern about the issue.

“Things are really getting tight here at Western. There’s certainly a willingness " dividing the pie is the issue,” she explained.

Hutchinson emphasized the importance of finding a solution.

“So much is riding on the few years that [students] are here, you want to provide the services that will make them as successful as they can be.”

University Students’ Council president Tom Stevenson insisted everyone is working to find a solution.

“Anytime we hear a need from our ancillary units, we do what we can to accommodate that need.”

So far, the only concrete solutions have come from the those battling depression.

Gordon and his friend Justin Smith, a political science graduate, are currently developing BLUEprint, a cyber therapy tool that connects students anonymously with trained psychologists and other sufferers of depression online.

Smith and Gordon started the project a year ago, and are presently in the midst of working through the kinks in the system.

While the ultimate goal is to see a psychologist in person, Gordon said it’s a great way to make the first step.

“Having that constant feeling that you can’t relate to anybody in the world, that’s not a good thing. That’s been our main goal to show people that they’re not alone,” Gordon explained.

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