More than stressed out, not quite in crisis: How students living with mental illness are falling through the cracks of campus mental health services

By Alyssa Boudreau, Contributor

I have suffered from anxiety and depression since high school. Last year, my first year of university, I struggled hard, but was too nervous to get help. Fast forward to last semester, the beginning of November: I sat at a table in the middle of Fraser, sobbing hysterically on the phone to my dad.

My dad successfully persuaded me to go check out Laurentian’s mental health services. It took all the guts I had, but I found myself with my puffy eyes and tear stained face standing in the office. Barely able to speak without bursting into tears again, I asked the secretary if I could speak with a counsellor. Not looking up from her computer, she asked, “Are you in crisis?”

Taken aback, this question snapped me out of my anxiety-induced hazed. I was not suicidal, nor was I thinking about hurting myself, so I responded, “I guess not.” I then decided to make an appointment, thinking I could last another week or so without seeing someone.

The secretary scrolled through her computer and gave me the date of the next available appointment—2 months away.

“A lot of people book appointments ahead for exam stress,” she explained.

Feeling very frustrated and not wanting to take my anger out on the wrong person, I left the office without making an appointment.

I am in no way implying that my “stresses” are worse than those students who need counselling to deal with exam stress, but I do not believe they are comparable. There should be different services to deal with basic university stresses so that students with diagnosed mental illnesses can be seen whenever they feel necessary.

A fifth of Canadian postsecondary students are depressed and anxious or battling other mental health issues, according to the most recent National College Health Assessment survey from 2016.

This survey also found that 13% of Canadian postsecondary students indicated seriously contemplating suicide. Both of these statistics have increased since the last NCHA survey in 2013. The question is: are university resources keeping up?

“I asked the secretary if I could speak with a counsellor. Not looking up from her computer, she asked, “Are you in crisis?” I was not suicidal, nor was I thinking about hurting myself, so I responded, “I guess not.”” – Alyssa Grace, second-year Laurentian student

After my negative experience, I decided to reach out to other Laurentian students, ranging from first years to grad students, to see if I was the exception to the rule.

I spoke with Ryan Wildgoose, graduate student and co-director of Pride@LU, about his experiences with Laurentian’s mental health services.

“My experiences with the mental health services on campus were not exactly helpful,” said Wildgoose. “However, they were not as bad as friends report their experiences to have been.”

“The biggest issue I came [across] was that the counsellor simply did not seem to recognize that different people require different help.”

Wildgoose explained how he was often blamed for not making progress, when the counsellor’s methods actually worsened his mental health.

“I suffer from several anxiety disorders, and their manner of addressing it was by pushing me into situations that caused me anxiety,” he said.

Students are limited to 10 sessions, which is also a point of frustration.

“You barely get the chance to even build a rapport with a counsellor before you’re left to fend for yourself. Perhaps I would have been able to get better help, alternative suggestions, from the counsellor had I been given more time with them,” Wildgoose said.

Wildgoose accessed the school’s services during the summer of 2016, where he benefitted from the fact that there were fewer students accessing the services at the time.

“During the school year I am unable to obtain help because I do not want to wait months just to have another ten sessions where I barely get to build a rapport with a counsellor,” he said.

A second student I spoke with, who preferred to stay anonymous, had a similar experience.

“I accessed the counselling services for about 6 months in my first year, so about four years ago. Overall, my experience was negative,” she said.

She recalled the wait time to be one to two months, and was accessing the services for pre-existing mental health issues. She felt as though the counsellor was unprepared to deal with anything outside of “normal school stresses” and she was referred out to different services who were “appalled that [the] counsellor didn’t do anything about it.”

First year student Lauren Darrell heard about Laurentian’s mental health services during frosh week in September.

“I was looking to see someone to offer me some support as I have a prior history of depression and anxiety while struggling with the stress that comes from starting university,” Darrell said.

When she went to book an appointment, Darrell was told that because she “seemed okay”, it would be about a month and a half wait. Darrell decided to seek counselling elsewhere, wishing that Laurentian’s services would not “assess a person’s mental state by their current presentation.”

“I was turned away because my case was ‘too severe’ and they are only there for ‘school support and short term counselling’.” – Anonymous Laurentian student

A student diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder, who chose to stay anonymous for this article, reached out to Laurentian’s mental health services when she was actively suicidal.

“At the end of the session I was turned away,” she said. “I was turned away because my case was ‘too severe’ and they are only there for ‘school support and short term counselling’.”

She now pays a psychologist $175 an hour, Laurentian’s services having been the only cost-effective services she had access to.

“It was absolutely heart breaking and escalated the severity of my illnesses at the time,” she said.

She believes that these services are great for people who need help managing the stresses of school, but not for managing long-term mental health issues.

“Being turned away could have cost me my life,” she said.

It’s true that students seeking help for stress-related symptoms and struggles tend to have more success with on-campus support. The final student I spoke to accessed Laurentian’s counselling services for “general stress and tips for time management.” This student found her experience to be very positive and helpful, but believes the services “should broaden their services to help people with different needs.”

At the time of writing this article, counselling has not responded to my attempts to contact them for comment.

For those of us with mental health issues, the general consensus seems to be that Laurentian’s counselling service is not meeting standards. It really is inexcusable for students who are in dire need of help to be turned away.

In order for these services to offer support for everybody, some big changes must be made. Firstly, more counsellors must be hired; particularly ones capable of dealing with extreme mental health issues, no matter how bad it gets.

Secondly, the 10-session cap needs to be lifted; it is unrealistic to expect students to have sorted their troubles out in a set amount of time.

Lastly, I truly believe that services should differentiate between support counsellors for students struggling with school stressors, and counsellors readily available for students living with mental illnesses.

Budgets are tight, and counsellors are doing the best they can with the resources and knowledge they have; but if this school’s administration is serious about having students’ mental health at the forefront of their decisions, it is vital that they invest in solutions to what can otherwise be fatal flaws in our support system.

If you’re struggling with your mental health, you can call Good2Talk, a confidential helpline available 24/7/365, at 1-866-925-5454.