News  McGill Mental Health cleans up

New director is committed to fewer pills and shorter wait-lists

After dealing with last year’s long wait-lists for counselling or psychiatric treatment at McGill Mental Health Services (MMHS), both MMHS and Headspace – a peer counselling service that engages in mental health advocacy – say the University has cleaned up its act.

MMHS is often crowded because it offers free counselling to non-Quebec residents, said Iris Erdile, a member of a McGill collective, Headspace, which provides peer counselling services and engages in mental health advocacy. Wait-lists grew even longer when the service switched clinical directors from Dr. Norman Hoffman to Dr. Robert Franck last year, said Erdile.

Franck acknowledged the urgency of student mental health issues, given the stress and rapid pace of student life.

“Even two weeks is a long time in university,” Franck said. “Our objective is to have no longer than a two week waiting period.”

Patients can wait up to six months for an appointment at mental health providers outside McGill, according to Franck. He also emphasized that students can drop in to see a psychiatrist during MMHS’s operating hours – Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. MMHS usually receives four to five individuals for drop in appointments each day. According to Franck, MMHS currently supports around 530 students with 1,300 visits each month – about 60 visits each day.

Under Franck’s directorship, MMHS tries to avoid medicating patients, opting for a wellness model based on therapy.

“The goal is that the student be on the least medication possible…for the shortest period of time,” Franck said. “Medication is not an answer. It’s, at best, a tool.”

McGill MMHS and the University of Toronto’s Student Psychiatric Services are the only two Canadian university mental health services that provide a full range of mental health services, short of hospitalization.

In contrast with McGill, Concordia does not have a separate mental health department; it provides psychiatrists for students through Concordia Health Services.

They also do not provide long-term care and often refer students to outside treatment – such as to the Argyle Institute for Human Relations, a private non-profit Montreal counselling and psychotherapy provider.

Franck was skeptical about students relying on organizations outside of the University for care.

“I would prefer not to refer to the outside…[though] sometimes a student will need special care.”

However, Erdile expressed concern that MMHS was not making full use of the services available in Montreal.

“They could do a better job working with outside groups,” Erdile said.

Although MMHS collaborates with other student services, MMHS cannot freely share information with those services due to rules of doctor-patient confidentiality.

Franck hopes to introduce a waiver scheme that will permit MMHS to share information with other services at McGill to provide optimal care. Patients could sign a consent waiver allowing McGill’s many student services to share information with each other, although not with outside organizations or the administration.

According to Franck, if someone from Health Services asks whether one of their patients has gone to MMHS, MMHS cannot disclose that information.

“We have to say, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t tell you that, it’s confidential.’”

Franck expects most students will sign the waiver.

“I don’t think students will object to that…and, of course, no one will be denied care because they haven’t signed a paper.”