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Students wait for mental health services

Youth more likely to suffer from mental health issues, Dalhousie University does what it can

by Kendra Lovegrove

In the past year Dal counselling has directly helped 2,560 students: 101 from NSCAD; 335 from Kings; and 2124 from Dal.
In the past year Dal counselling has directly helped 2,560 students: 101 from NSCAD; 335 from Kings; and 2124 from Dal.

(K'JIPUKTUK) HALIFAX-- In any given year, one in five Canadians will experience a mental health problem or illness.

In 2012, Statistics Canada produced the results of the Canadian Community Health Survey in regard to mental health. The survey determined that in the past 12 months, approximately 4.9 million individuals, ages 15 and older, had perceived themselves as having a need for mental health care.  Of those people, 67 per cent of them had their needs met, while 12 per cent reported their needs were unmet. The remaining 21 per cent said they had their needs partially met, meaning they received some mental health care, but perceived they needed more.

Mental health is a growing epidemic within North America, and it shows no sign of subsiding.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health , which is located in Toronto, says that young people, ages 15 to 24, are more likely to experience mental illness and or/substance use disorders than any other age group.

It’s no surprise then that university campuses across Canada make a point to subsidize mental health services for students.

Student Health at the University of Alberta published their findings from their 2011 College Health Assessment. What they found was troubling.

The University had 1,600 students responded. Of those students, 34.4 per cent of them felt so depressed that it was difficult for them to function, 6.8 per cent of them seriously contemplated suicide, while 1.2 per cent, specifically 19 people, attempted suicide.

These statistics aren’t home to just the University of Alberta. A 2009 student survey of six Ontario post-secondary institutions found that approximately 15 per cent of students have been treated by a professional for one or more mental health problems. Approximately 53 per cent of students indicated they felt overwhelmed by anxiety, and 36 per cent felt so depressed, they said it was difficult to function.

David Mensink, is a registered psychologist at Dalhousie’s Health and Wellness services and he says the reasons for these statistics vary. “Some are clearly obvious, e.g., lack of sleep, nutrition, exercise, time and work planning and some are more illusive,” he says. “The sources or causes of anxiety and depression are experiential and interpersonal and vary depending on the individual.”

Universities across the country are making it a priority to not only talk about mental health, but create resources for students. Mental health services are a vital part of mental health support, and without them many students would go untreated and without the help that they need.

Dalhousie’s mental health services

The University of Dalhousie offers free personal counselling to registered students of Dalhousie, the University of King’s College and NSCAD University. Though the University of Kings does not pay a fee, NSCAD pays $55,000 a year so their students have access to Dal’s services says Dr. Bonnie Neuman, vice president of student services at Dal.

Dr. Victor Day, the director of counselling services says that in the past year Dal counselling has directly helped 2,560 students: 101 from NSCAD; 335 from Kings; and 2124 from Dal.

Though Dal has done much to accommodate its’ students and their need for mental health resources, Mensink agrees that the waiting list is still longer than they would like it to be.

“The solution to that would be to hire extra staff, and the person who makes that decision is the vice president of student services,” says Mensink.

Neuman says that the only staff increase that Dalhousie is looking into is to, “hire one more counsellor [who] would have a background in terms of serving international students. [...] We found that [for] students of course, who are in great distress, it is much easier for them to work with somebody in their own language.”

With Dal’s extensive international student population, this resource could greatly benefit those who have moved to Canada for their studies, but one more counsellor would only slightly decrease wait times. As of right now Dal counselling has 16 part time staff and ten full time staff,says Neuman. These counsellors work with both international and national students.

“The total funding for the [Dal counselling] department is just a little over 1.5 million dollars a year,” says Neuman. “All of that except for $30,000 goes to salaries, but the salaries are for personal counselors who are all registered psychologists. So they have at least a master degree in clinical psychology.”

While mental illness constitutes for more than 15 per cent of disease in Canada, these illnesses receive less than 6 per cent of the health care dollars, states the website for the Center for Addiction and Mental Health. It goes on to say that almost one third of Canadians who seek mental health care report that their needs have gone unmet, or only partially met. The rate is even higher for children and youth, and with only 60 per cent of family physicians ranking access to psychiatrists in Ontario as fair to poor, it can leave citizens with the burden of an untreated mental illness.

Minimizing wait times

In order to minimize wait times as best they can, Dal counselling has created a system to make sure students who are undergoing a crisis will have access to same-day mental health resources.

Three wait lists have been created says Mensink. “Students who want to come to the centre can come and pretty much make an appointment the same day.  [...] We call those brief initial consultations and every counsellor holds a certain number of those on a daily basis,” he says.  This initial screening gives counsellors a chance to interact with the students and see what state their mental health is at.

“If a student has an emergency in regard to their mental health they are seen on the same day. There is no wait list for emergencies,” says Mensink. This is the first and most critical “waitlist” at the counselling centre.

From there the second waitlist is an “ASAP” waitlist, says Mensink. “For the most part we’re able to handle, I would say 99% of those students within a week,” he says.

Lastly, there is the third waitlist, which is the regular waitlist. This waitlist is for students who may be feeling a bit anxious or need someone to talk to, but who aren’t undergoing a severe crisis or need immediate care.

Though Mensink and Dal counselling are doing all that they can with the resources that they have, students share mixed opinions and feelings on Dal’s services.

Kimber Lubberts is a fourth year journalism student at the University of Kings, and she has been coping with an anxiety disorder for the past two years. “I kind of just shut down when it comes to certain things,” says Lubberts. “At it's worst, I wouldn’t even answer my phone if I didn’t know who it was. I wouldn’t call to make my own doctor appointments and dreaded going to the bank. Being in journalism was an issue because when I had to go do interviews I completely shut down. So I wouldn’t hand in the piece I was supposed to write, and wouldn't go to class either.”

Lubberts says she has been to Dal counselling on two separate occasions. Though Lubberts got both of her consultation appointments on the same day, it was about 4 weeks until she was able to get regular sessions scheduled with a counsellor after her first visit.

“That being said, once I was seeing someone, she was awesome, but the four weeks I had to wait were awful,” says Lubberts. “The second time I had to book an appointment, I got my consultation the first time. I called and the lady I saw said she knew how long the wait was to get regular sessions, and said she didn’t want me to wait that long, so she booked me with herself for the next week.”

However, other students haven’t felt the same support from Dal counselling as much as others.

Jillian Dean, a fourth year psychology major at Dal, says she first sought Dalhousie’s Mental Health Services at the start of February 2014. “After seeing a therapist with Capital Health for several years, which I did not feel helped me in any way, I decided to try the services provided by Dal,” says Dean. “I have had to jump through hoops to try and elicit the service I require from Health Services staff.”

The therapist that Dean was directed to relied on cognitive behavioural therapy, she says. Cognitive behaviour therapy is the most common type of therapy, which works to change one’s thought process and as a result change their behaviour. However, this was not what Dean was looking for. She was then directed to a physician at Dal’s Health services in order to receive a medication that could help her with borderline personality disorder (BPD).  

“The physician was visibly in a hurry to dismiss me and had no background of my illness, the medications I had taken, and no communication with my current therapist. I explained why I was there, what medications I had tried and what outcome I was expecting from my visit. I was told that if I had already tried the medications I said I had, there was nothing that could be done for me [...] no medication or further help was suggested.”

Students take a stand

With universities only offering what they can, students have begun to create their own programs and opportunities to not just help themselves but others.

Brendan Peters is a PHD student at the University of Toronto, and is also a member of the Graduate Student Health Committee. The committee was created by two graduate students from U of T, and has now reached 20 members. The committee’s general objectives are to: create a dialogue between students and administration; provide consultation and program services; identify education and information needs; to organize campus wide events around mental health; and to serve as a resource for grad students seeking mental health care on campus or in the community.

“Graduate students have a very specific set of challenges apart from undergrads. One that many people have highlighted is isolation and loneliness,” says Peters. “When you specialize in a masters, or PHD and postdoctoral fellowship it becomes a very, very, small set of people that you engage with, in a very, very, specific environment, and if you’re dealing with some sort of mental health issue it can really be isolating.”

The committee has organized campus-wide events, such as mental health mondays, which involves activities like yoga, dog therapy, meditation and mindfulness.

A conversation and stream of communication has been taking place between U of T administration and the committee. Peter’s and other members of the group hope that this only continues to grow.

What’s clear, is that both administration and students can agree that more needs to be done to minimize wait times, but for now any changes to the system seem to be a second thought. “[...]At this point we have no other commitment from the university,” says Neuman.

If you or someone you know is suffering with a mental illness or needs someone to talk to check out the following links below, and remember you’re not alone.


Mental Health Crisis Line: 1-888-429-8167 (toll free)
Telephone crisis support and mobile response is offered for work, home, school, and community agencies Service is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868
Kids Help Phone is a free, anonymous and confidential phone and online professional counselling service for youth. Big or small concerns. 24/7. 365 days a year.

Canadian Mental Health Association:  http://www.cmha.ca/ 
Support for people with mental illnesses including Communities Addressing Suicide Together Program.

Dalhousie Mental Health Services: 1-902-494-2081 [https://www.dal.ca/campus_life/student_services/health-and-wellness/counselling/personal-counselling/individual-counselling.html]  
Accessible to students who are registered with Dal, Kings or NSCAD University.

For more specific locations follow the following link to find resources across Nova Scotia:


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