By Kristy Koehler, June 20 2019—
On June 19, Students for Direct Action held a town hall to gather student concerns regarding the state of mental health funding and support on campus. SDA co-organizer Mateusz Salmassi said that issues he hears frequently from students include long wait times, lack of counselors, lack of diversity in counselors and too few modalities.
Two staff from the Wellness Centre were present at the town hall, both to take note of student concerns and to provide assistance in the event of an attendee becoming distressed by the topics being discussed. Also in attendance were Students’ Union president Jessica Revington, vice-president operations and finance Omer Mansoor and vice-president external Sadiya Nazir.
“We need more culturally sensitive services for marginalized groups, and that includes more people of colour,” said Salmassi. “There are few enough therapists that it has to be the case that lots of students of colour are being paired with therapists who might not necessarily have the background to deal with an oppressed community’s issues,” said Salmassi, though uncertain of the specific demographic makeup of the Wellness Center.
“Our team — specifically the mental health team — is quite diverse,” said Debbie Bruckner, senior director of student wellness for the University of Calgary. “Over half of them are actually members of visible minorities.”
SDA, in addition to attendees of the town hall, expressed concern with limited treatment options — namely the focus on talk therapy. Other options the students want the Wellness Centre to explore are art therapy, group therapy and a greater emphasis on emotional and spiritual health.
“We also had folks bring up special needs for students on the spectrum as well as long wait times,” said Salmassi of the discussions had at the town hall. “We had students bring up that there are napping rooms at MRU and that it might be nice to have that at U of C. We hear a lot of rhetoric from the university about mental health being a campus-wide initiative but we don’t see a whole lot of infrastructure other than, park benches, let’s say […] and renovations here and there. Seating areas are nice but that’s not enough to deal with the actual crisis on campus.”
Bruckner said that the whole environment of the campus is key to the university’s mental health strategy.
“Is there enough green space? What happens in the classroom? What are our policies like? Are they supportive of mental health? It’s all those different strategic factors that create an environment that’s supportive to mental health,” said Bruckner.
SDA expressed concern over the seemingly short-term approach offered by the Wellness Centre.
“When you’re in therapy and working through things other things come up and you want to work through that,” said Salmassi. “What’s happening right now is that we’re being sent to off-campus resources.”
Bruckner said that there was a limit on counseling visits, years ago, but that nowadays, students have access to unlimited counseling appointments. That being said, students are referred off-campus for issues that require more intensive treatment.
“Our mandate from our funders is short-term,” she said.
As for the wait times, Brucker says the average wait time for an initial appointment is three-and-a-half days, however if students present with an urgent need, they are generally seen that day. She says there are three spots kept open daily for urgent needs.
The town hall attendees also shared positive experiences they’ve had with the Wellness Centre. Students seemed, overall, happy with their counselors, citing them as professional and caring individuals.
Buckner said she was happy to answer student questions.
“I’m pleased that there’s any group that’s talking about mental health and wanting to get people together to engage in conversation,” she said. “There’s never anything wrong with students gathering to talk about their needs and ask questions.”
Revington echoed that sentiment.
“I think it’s fantastic to see students mobilizing on issues that they’re passionate about,” Revington said. “It was really interesting to see what these students had to say, particularly on the issue of mental health and they raised some great questions at the town hall. With our provincial and our federal advocacy groups, mental health is at the forefront of our priorities. I plan to champion mental health as an issue that affects not only students on our campus but the wider campus community.”
“We will continue pushing for a full, comprehensive Wellness Centre that meets the demands for mental health care on campus,” said Salmassi. “We know that there is a crisis on campus. We know that there have been suicides on campus. We know that lots of students have come to us complaining about long wait times, so we have many questions when it comes to funding.”