Universities getting creative to meet mental health needs

Students and administrators both working to improve support services.

Information board for the King’s Mental Health Awareness Collective. (Photo: Sara Leslie)

If a student faces an imminent safety risk due to mental health issues, Dalhousie University’s Counselling and Psychological Services will see them immediately.

However, in a non-emergency situation, a student schedules a brief consultation before meeting with a psychologist.  The entire process can take a few days to several weeks, depending on the time of year.

“We don’t have enough people to service the number of students who are asking for help,” says Victor Day, the office’s director.

“Each day one counsellor sets aside one session to deal with emergencies,” explains Day, who has worked as a psychologist at Dal for 35 years. But beyond that, wait times depend on the type of service being sought and the time of year.

The elimination of a staff position at Counselling and Psychological Services, decided two years ago, will take place this summer. However, Day says recent student health fee increases have allowed Dalhousie to hire additional part-time counsellors to work evenings and Saturdays.

Posters created by NSCADs mental health working group. (Photo: Sara Leslie)

Peer support

The demand on Dalhousie’s counselling centre is further increased by the two smaller universities who also depend on its services.

The increasing demand for mental health support has led administrators and students to find creative ways to boost support.

Bill Travis, Disability Coordinator at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, says their school does not have a counselling centre on site.

Students in need are instead directed to Dal Counselling and Psychological Services, which places further demand on the highly requested service.

“We pay Dal for a visiting counsellor one afternoon a week,” says Travis.

Recently, a NSCAD student suffered a panic attack while the counsellor was on campus, and so the student was able to be seen right away. Travis notes that this is usually not the case.

In response to the lack of professional support on campus, students at NSCAD have formed a mental health working group.

Liza Rader, one of the students who helps run the group, says regular peer support coffee hours have been particularly effective.  Radar explains that the meetings are not open to observers, just those who have personally experienced a need for mental health support.  She says this helps students open up about their struggles or concerns.

“They’re in a space that is safe, and that’s really rare,” says Radar.

After-hours support

The University of King’s College does not have an on-campus counselling centre either, and so it too relies on Dalhousie’s counselling services to meet student needs.

Nicholas Hatt, the Dean of Residence at King’s, says the school provides residence support in the form of dons who live on campus with students.  The dons have been trained in suicide intervention, and personal crisis support.  The dons rotate on-call duties so that there is a least one don available 24 hours a day.

Like NSCAD, King’s students have also formed a mental health peer support group.  The King’s Mental Health Awareness Collective meets every two weeks to discuss mental health issues facing students.

The group recently hosted Kamp K.S.U., a night of movies and games to help students de-stress during the exam period.

“The initiatives that come from students are often the most effective,” says Hatt.

King’s trains student patrollers to conduct after-hours security rounds between 4:00 P.M. and 8:00 A.M. Hatt says patrollers are also trained in personal crisis support in the event that they encounter a student in distress during one of their hourly rounds.

Sarah Morris, who oversees the Counselling Centre at Saint Mary’s University, says the school recently provided the centre with an eight-month contract for an additional counsellor and access to Shepell-FGI, a 24-hour telephone and video counselling resource.

Morris says wait times at the Counselling Centre have also been improved.

“We do intake every day.  Any student that needs or wants to be seen that day will be seen,” says Morris.

All four universities also utilize community resources such as the Mental Health Mobile Health Crisis Team, which provides after-hour support in the event of a mental health emergency.