Dalhousie needs more full-time counsellors

Dalhousie’s counsellors are overworked and understaffed. But that could change.

University counselling services are so busy students often wait weeks for an appointment. (Photo: Ben DuPlessis)

Students looking for personal counselling at Dalhousie University, whether it’s for anger management or body image concerns, sign up for a brief consultation meeting with a counsellor to see if they need therapy sessions. If it’s crucial, a student will start therapy immediately; otherwise they are put on a waiting list.

At the last Dalhousie Student Union meeting, Verity Turpin, an executive director at the university’s student services department, announced that hiring more part-time counsellors has made room for a 25 per cent increase in initial consultations since last year. Still, 279 students in September and October were unable to book appointments. Part-time counsellors help assess students, but the demand for full-time counsellors is ever growing.

“The center is very busy. I think I can speak for all of us when I write, ‘we are run off our feet’,” said Dr. David Mensink in an email interview. Mensink is one of Dalhousie’s six full-time psychiatrists. They work alongside 20 part-time counsellors, who work only a few days a week, and mental health peer support groups. “We all have a number of clients and also run groups, attend meetings, and perform various other responsibilities each day.”

Dalhousie’s overworked counsellors serve roughly 20,000 full-time students from Dalhousie, the University of King’s College and NSCAD. Right now, students seeking help have to wait at least three weeks for follow-up appointments after their consultation. Towards the end of the semester, they often have to wait up to a month.

“A student who is on the waiting list is important,” says Turpin. “Ideally, if they need help, they should (have it) immediately.”

To meet the demand, director Turpin proposed an $8.25 increase to students’ health services fee, which is currently $19.05. The money, in addition to other health services, would be used to retain one more full-time psychiatrist. For an additional $3.19, Dalhousie could hire another full-time counsellor as well.

Knowing when to ask for help

Gail Gardner, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Nova Scotia division, says there are signs that may tell you it’s time to look to a professional for some advice.

“If people are having difficulties in their daily lives and it’s starting to affect how things are going,” Gardner says it’s a good idea to call your university’s counselling centre.

“It’s very important when you go in to be very candid about your situation and what’s going on,” she says, “because they have to understand what your issues are so that they can determine the services that you need and how immediate those services need to be.”

Realizing you need help is a good sign, she says. By taking that first step—getting an appointment or getting your name on the waiting list—you’re demonstrating the will to get better, which is a vital part of being mentally healthy. It’s a good idea to gently encourage friends on a wait list to follow up with their counsellor.

“I think it’s important for all of us to pay attention to our mental health,” Gardner says. “I think we all know when we are having an inability to function to our normal standard, that would be a time to reach out and ask someone for help.”

Dealing with the wait

University counselling services may be busy, but there are people you can talk to if you end up on a waiting list. Gail Gardner, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Nova Scotia division, says it’s important to remember to call your school’s counselling service again if your situation, or that of someone you know, becomes worse; if possible, you’ll get an emergency appointment right away.

There are options outside of university counselling centres:

  • A family doctor can test you for thyroid conditions or refer you to other counselling services.
  • “For some people,” says Gardner, “peer support can be very helpful.”
  • You can call the Mental Health Mobile Crisis Team for immediate help. It’s a group of mental health specialists and police officers with a 24-hour phone line (1-888-429-8167). If you live in the Capital Health district, which encompasses much of HRM, they will send someone to you in a crisis.
  • The emergency room at your nearest hospital is equipped to deal with people struggling with mental health.
  • The Employee Assistance Program, if you have a parent covered by it, provides access to counselling.
  • Calling 211. Responders will listen to your situation and direct you to people or counselling services who can help you.
  • Addiction Services offices, divided by Nova Scotia health districts, offer counselling for anyone struggling with substance abuse.
  • Calling the Canadian Mental Health Association‘s Nova Scotia division at 1-902-466-6600. They’ll listen to you, then tell you what your options are.

“If you feel that you do need to access help, that help is out there. You should utilize the services that are available,” says Gardner.

“The important thing is to reach out and ask for help.”




2 thoughts on “Dalhousie needs more full-time counsellors

  1. I wonder why Dal’s counselling + psychological services ONLY hires psychologists? In terms of mental health clinicians, they are the more expensive. There is a School of Social Work at Dal - why not utilize more MSW level social workers? In conjunction with psychologists of course - not only would that provide for good interdisciplinary work (i.e. holistic therapy), but it would also be more economically sustainable for the university.

    MSW level clinicians currently provide therapy in the public (i.e. health care) system - so why not at Dal, too?

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