Where universities fall short with mental health resources

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Photo by Luke Sarazin

On 2018’s Bell Let’s Talk Day, the twitter page @SpottedLaurier published three tweets directed toward the wellness centre on campus.

“#bellletstalk about how the Wellness Centre turned me away during crisis hours because I wasn’t going to kill myself.. but all I needed was someone to talk to that day.” The anonymous tweet was published at 3:56 am.

The one that followed was in the afternoon:

“#BellLetsTalk because the Wellness Centre turned me away for being a ‘conflict of interest’ because my sister was someone of importance in the Laurier community and that apparently trumped my mental health in first year.”

The final tweet was posted in the evening, demanding change within the Wellness Centre. They claimed that the waitlist for mental health services was too long.

Before delving into the issues on campus any further, I think that we need to take a step back. Wilfrid Laurier isn’t the only university that struggles with mental health resources.

According to an August 2016 release from The Ontario University and College Health Association (OUCHA), 65 per cent of students reported experiencing overwhelming anxiety.

The report claims that 13 per cent of post-secondary students reported having seriously considered suicide and around 11 per cent (roughly 2,803 students) had attempted it.

This data reflects an eight per cent spike since the last survey was conducted in 2013.

But where is this spike coming from? How did we become the generation with record breaking mental health issues? The answer to that isn’t simple, but it may be related to a number of unique, modern factors.

In a research statement released by Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), social media was linked to a negative impact on young people’s mental health.

“Social media has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol, and is now entrenched in the lives of young people that it is no longer possible to ignore it when talking about young people’s mental health issues,” claimed chief executive of RSPH, Shirley Cramer in a 2017 report.

“It’s interesting to see Instagram and Snapchat ranking as the worst for mental health and wellbeing — both platforms are image focused and it appears they may be driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people.”

But it isn’t just social media. It’s video games, drinking, Christmas, societal expectations and a constant barrage of information. Global news and looming war affects our mood — there have even been studies of country music being linked to depression.

But it’s also worth noting that the increase in reported data might not be because more students are depressed than they were in 2013 — it’s possible that the stigma surrounding mental health has simply been broken down to the point where more students feel comfortable coming forward.

“You just need to look around Laurier, there’s so many students actively championing the need for more discussion around mental health and decreasing stigma. By extension, there’s also a lot more people engaging in the conversation about mental health,” Leanne Holland-Brown, Dean of Students at Laurier, said.

We know where we are, but how do we move forward? A first step would be understanding that problems we face at Laurier are the same problems other universities are facing.

“In the news there’s been information concerning student’s mental health,” Karen Ostrander, director of the Student Wellness Centre said.

At this point she motioned to a thick blue booklet aptly titled ‘Student Mental Health,’ sitting on her desk. It had a million yellow tabs sticking out, and — as if to ensure I had seen it — she lifted it up and then let it drop back onto her desk.

“I’ve been here for quite some time; I think the world has changed quite a bit,” she continued.

“I think the population of students that we’re seeing now, there might be more significant mental health concerns presenting in the post-secondary population partly because people are being better supported to get to post-secondary school.”

WLU is evidently one of the better universities when it comes to managing mental health. Professors are mostly understanding and there are a large number of resources available for students seeking help. The Wellness Centre as a whole takes a holistic approach to the well-being of students, focusing as much on physical health as they do on mental health.

Whether it’s the University of Waterloo, who’ve had three suicides since the start of 2018, or McGill University who are trying to accommodate the 35 per cent increase of students seeking counselling — it seems like all universities are grappling with a staggering demand for mental health resources.

“All you need to do is take a look at any of the articles coming out of universities and student’s affairs, not just in Canada but across North America. Probably even more broad than that, the challenge of increasingly complex mental health needs is not unique to Laurier,” Holland-Brown explained.

“We’re currently doing a survey for all students, just to try and get some feedback,” Ostrander said. “Being aware of the student landscape, regarding mental health, there’s a lot of concerns about the services and resources.”

“So, we wanted to reach out to our general student body to try and get some feedback to create a mechanism for that feedback. The Dean of Students also elected to meet with a number of student groups that might have special needs or possibly be marginalized, just to make sure they had an opportunity to chat as well.”

This survey, which can be accessed through your Laurier email, doesn’t actually ask for personal experiences. Instead, it asks questions pertaining to accessibility: Do you know where the Student Wellness Centre is located? Have you been there before? Are you aware of their services?

“The main kind of themes we’ve been chatting about have been relating to access, student’s knowledge and understanding of the Wellness Centre’s support and what it can provide,” Holland-Brown explained.

“We’ve been hearing about issues, challenges and barriers accessing support and experiences students have had with the Wellness Centre that can be improved upon.”

But issues lay beyond accessibility and what students know of the Wellness Centre. An ongoing problem seems to be resources and lack thereof. In The Cord’s March 7 issue, an anonymous letter to the Wellness Centre was published in the “Dear Life” section:

“Dear Wellness Centre,

I need an appointment this month, not mid April. I get that you guys work hard to help people but you also have a serious problem that needs to be addressed. How many students are slipping through the cracks because you can’t provide the adequate care expected of you?

Sincerely,

Desperate and destitute”

We have an estimated total of 17,019 undergraduate students at Laurier and only eight counsellors focused on their mental health.

If the Wellness Centre is dealing with a ratio of roughly 2,000 students per counsellor, how much attention is each individual being given? It would be fair to say that all universities are at a point of change, where how mental health is handled needs to be carefully considered.

At Laurier, we can count ourselves as lucky that our school genuinely cares about mental health and ensuring that the quality of student life remains high.

But it’s also fair to say we all still have a long way to go.

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