As of September 1, McGill Mental Health Services and McGill Counselling Services have both implemented a one-time $20 registration fee for new and returning students who wish to use their services. In addition, both services have put a flexible cap on the number of sessions a student can have at 16 and 15, respectively.
The decision to implement this direct fee was envisioned years ago as a way of managing demand for services that increased faster than enrolment, according to Jana Luker, Executive Director of Student Services. She also strongly emphasized that no student would ever be turned away if they could not pay the fee.
Both Mental Health and Counselling Services fall under under the funding of Student Services. 70 per cent of the Student Services budget comes from student fees, while the other 30 per cent comes from McGill’s operating budget.
It was in this 30 per cent that budget cuts hit the hardest, Luker explained. Student Services lost almost $500,000 due to university-wide budget cuts. Instead of limiting clinical hours or increasing wait times, the $20 fee was the “best thing in a not-so-great world,” in Luker’s words, that could be done to mitigate the loss.
Dr. Vera Romano, head of Counselling Services, told The Daily that all of the money would go directly toward access for students through paying staff and preserving innovative services. “It’s not like an accumulation of funds to be used elsewhere or later, it’s like now,” Romano said.
However, Romano admitted that as a service relying on a social justice model, they were “worried about privatization” but felt it was necessary to keep the quality of service.
According to Dr. Robert Franck, head of Mental Health Services, paying for the contracts of salaried staff is a big expense for Mental Health Services, and the $20 registration fee will help cushion the blow. “Last year, our mental health budget was in a severe deficit because we had put on contract a number of psychologists who were specialised in certain services, especially cognitive behaviour therapy,” Franck told The Daily.
Long wait times at Mental Health and Counselling Services have been a common complaint of students. According to Franck, in November 2012, Mental Health Services had 480 students on their waiting list, 280 of whom were waiting for a first appointment. According to Romano, getting a session at Counselling Services takes around four to six weeks, but without the fee and cap, would shoot up to eight weeks or more, she estimated.
Both Franck and Romano told The Daily that compared to getting a first appointment, obtaining regular therapy involves longer waiting times. “That is what we are trying to address with the 16 session limit,” Franck said. “[We want] to create turnover, so that students [… would] not have to wait on the waiting list for therapy.”
15 or 16 sessions, according to Romano, was not just an arbitrary number. “Usually Counselling Services works from a short-term model because we work from a positive psychology, resilience-based model,” Romano said. “We don’t believe that most students will need counselling or psychotherapy for years and years. But some do, so we do provide those as well.”
“Honestly, because we don’t have enough staff, the reality is, even if we did not have the session limit, in reality most students could not be seen more than that, because there’s more and more students seeking services,” Romano added.
However, Franck was careful to point out that the cap was flexible, and that no student would be turned away if they needed more help. According to Franck, if students needed long-term care and had access to their parents’ insurance, one solution would be to refer them outside of McGill. If not, “we will follow them, we’re not going to just abandon somebody who […] is going to need ongoing care.”
Because of emergency intake, possibilities for long-term care, and other services provided such as group therapy, “we don’t believe that vulnerable students are falling through the cracks,” Romano said.
SSMU VP University Affairs Joey Shea acknowledged that it was unfortunate that Student Services, one of the most “pro-student” units at McGill, had to take these cuts, but pointed to the larger picture.
“It’s part of a trend where services can no longer be provided by the University and therefore students are paying more directly, or are responsible for the financial burden essentially,” Shea said.