University of Winnipeg: Students want better access to mental health services

By: Lindsay Campbell

The last two months of school have been very hectic for Jesse Blackman, a student at the University of Winnipeg.

Since late September, students at the university have been organizing a campaign advocating for improved access to mental health services on campus. This has created a tense dynamic between the student body and the university’s administration.

In a matter of two months, the student movement has been able to draft a petition with more than 1,050 student signatures, demanding the hiring of three full-time counsellors.

Student protestors have made more than 350 calls to the university’s executive director of wellness as well as the office of the president, expressing their concerns, according to Blackman, the Canadian Federation of Students liaison director for the University of Winnipeg Student Association.

The university’s counsellor-to-student ratio of 1:10,000 is at an overwhelming high, says Blackman. The hiring of two additional full time counsellors would shorten the waitlist and provide students with more access to services.

“We have only have one general counsellor, who has a wait time of six weeks,” explains Blackman. “The majority of student mental health needs such as depression, anxiety, exam stress and eating disorders all fall under the purview of general counselling. That being said, it is clear that general counselling accessibility is paramount.”

The American based International Association of Counselling Services recommends a counsellor-to-student ratio at any post-secondary institution of 1:1,500, and says that having a ratio above that guideline poses a number of risks for students. According to the IACS, these risks include a longer waitlist, difficulty in providing services to students experiencing an increased variety of psychological issues and decreased support of student’s academic success.

A study conducted by the U.S.-based Association of University and College Counselling Centres indicates that internationally, 69 per cent of students said counselling helped their academic performance. With a ratio above the expected guideline, fewer students will benefit from the counselling services.

At Carleton University, students who use its mental health services on campus only face a maximum wait of four weeks, says Maureen Murdock, director of Carleton’s health and counselling services.

“Many students get frustrated because they have to wait three to four weeks to see a counsellor during our busy times,” Murdock says. “We could always use more counsellors. A lot of students would like to come for longer periods of time, but most of the time if a student has a very serious problem, we will try to see them immediately.”

Brock Wilson, a fourth year student at Carleton, can attest to this. During his first year of university, Wilson found his roommate in an inebriated state after an attempted suicide.

“I found him in our room and had to call an ambulance and take him to the hospital,” he explains. “Needless to say it was very traumatizing, but Carleton was very good with the way it reacted to my situation.”

Wilson says Carleton introduced him to its counselling services and it was a very positive experience.

“I was able to see a counsellor right away,” says Wilson. “I think I saw her three times. We talked about my feelings on the issue and debriefed the whole situation. It was a very cathartic experience for me. She gave me her card and told me she would be available to talk to me almost whenever.”

Although Carleton also sits below the recommended counsellor to student ratio at 1:3,600, the school has been moving in the right direction by making improvements to its mental health services over the past few years.

Along with the implementation of a two-year fall break trial which began in the 2013 fall semester, the university added two full-time counsellors to its staff after a student-led referendum this past year. Both have been successful attempts to treat mental health issues in the student community.

“There was an overwhelming response from the students to hire extra counsellors,” says Murdock. “I think that even if they aren’t using the services themselves, students are able to recognize the importance of having access to counselling services for their peers.”

Michael Kirby, former chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, says that he has seen universities bolstering their services.

“Universities are now devoting a lot more attention and resources to dealing with the mental health of students and that’s a very positive step forward, “says Kirby. “Obviously more needs to be done, but the simple fact that mental health is now on the agenda of every university president, when it never was five, six, seven years ago, is a huge step forward.”

Although Kirby believes the system is headed in the right direction, he encourages students to pressure the university administration to make those changes.

“Until we get mental health treated the same way that cancer, heart disease and diabetes are treated, the system won’t ever be right,” he adds. “Universities have a long ways to go, but if people keep pushing that’s also a very good thing. I would encourage students to keep doing that because that’s the way change will be made in the system.”

In Winnipeg, Blackman says that is exactly what the student body intends to do if the university fails to meet its demands.

“Inadequate counselling services are not new at this institution, and ultimately the University of Winnipeg drastically fails to meet the general counselling needs of students,” Blackman explains. “If something is not done about this, students will continue to organize, disrupt the administration’s operation and garner media attention to a very clear-cut service provision issue.”

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