Commentary  Mental health services should be a priority

McGill needs to redirect more funding toward MMHS

In a high-pressure university setting, mental health services are crucial to the wellbeing of the student body. As exams approach and stress levels intensify, the strain on McGill’s already understaffed and underfunded Mental Health Services becomes greater. Underlying mental health conditions – anxiety for instance – often surface at this time, exacerbated by intense academic conditions. McGill’s services are currently inadequate to handle this inflow of students, and this needs to be addressed.

McGill Mental Health Services (MMHS) offers appointments with psychiatrists and psychologists, as well as one of the most well-rounded and inclusive eating disorder programs in Canada. Students who contact Mental Health Services can schedule an initial appointment, or “intake,” which will theoretically be followed up by an appointment with an appropriate mental health professional.

Unfortunately, underfunded and understaffed services mean a harder time following up with patients and scheduling emergency appointments. MMHS’s staff has only twenty part-time employees – equivalent to ten full-time staff – even though McGill’s increasing student population is radically outpacing these resources. Mental Health Services managed an estimated 20,000 appointments this year, and with such limited numbers of staff, follow up was often delayed, or students were referred to services at Concordia or Montreal hospitals. These services are not always free or easy to get reimbursed for non-Quebec reisdents, and are located off-campus, both things that can deter to students seeking further treatment. Furthermore, distinctions between MMHS and McGill counseling are often not apparent, so students who might be better served by counseling – which provides support for a range of personal and academic problems – are inappropriately led to MMHS. This places a greater strain on Mental Health’s capacity to address those in need of their specific services.

Further barriers exist as a result of the stigmatization of mental health issues. It is necessary to work toward normalizing discussion and awareness of mental health. We need to create a culture in which people feel comfortable discussing their concerns, admitting the presence of problems, and ultimately asking for help. Many people don’t seek treatment for these issues simply because of the associated stigmas, but when students do reach out, stability of treatment is paramount.

Making students aware of the mental health services available to them at crucial points of contact – like orientation week and in residences – is an important first step in improving accessibility. Enhanced accessibility and awareness of mental health issues are meaningless without a concurrent improvement in the ability of the services to handle a higher volume of students.

MMHS is separate from McGill Student Health, so it receives its funding differently. Mental Health funding comes from a mandatory Student Services fee and provincial funding. However, this is currently not adequate to support the level of operation at which MMHS should be functioning. SSMU is currently running a surplus, and has been known to allocate funds to projects that improve student life using these funds, including transferring resources to the library in order to enable it to remain open for 24 hours. Student mental health is an equally valuable endeavour, and one that SSMU should prioritize in future budgets when considering where funds should be allocated. In addition, the administration is increasing enrolment and investing in residence expansion. Students need to lobby on behalf of MMHS to receive increased funding. According to Morton Mendelson, deputy provost (Student Life and Learning), the administration refuses to increase funds to MMHS, despite recent enrolment increases. Mendelson insisted that there was no room in their budget: “It’s taken student money, that’s just the financial realities,” he said. “Some problems you can’t solve by throwing money at it.”

An increase in staff is necessary to effectively cope with the volume of current students seeking help and with those who will inevitably contact MMHS in the future. Increased funding is integral to the ability of MMHS to increase its staff. The administration needs to realize that mental health concerns are as fundamentally important to student life as housing and food services. They need to take action to prioritize its increased funding.