On October 7, McGill announced that it would be launching a new mental health initiative in the spring, supported by a $1 million grant from Bell that will be split evenly with Université de Montréal. McGill’s $500,000 share is being used to develop a Wellness Portal, the main component of which will be an online tool for students to self-screen for mental health issues.
In a joint email to The Daily, Mental Health Education Coordinator Emily Yung and clinical psychologist Giuseppe Alfonsi, from McGill Mental Health Service, outlined the purpose of the portal.
“Students will be able to easily navigate to find more information on mental health topics, mental health services including peer support and resources both on- and off-campus, and calendar and gallery of events,” they stated. “[The grant] proposal was to develop online tools to help students in need with respect to mental health problems. The proposal included a screening tool.”
In an interview with The Daily, Director of Student Services Jana Luker said that, although the portal had undergone a test launch, further development is still underway.
“We are bringing in some other types of assessments that are already tried and true that other universities have been using. We’re trying to make [the project] bigger than what it is right now.”
According to Yung and Alfonsi, “A plan is in place to collect stakeholder feedback (from staff, students, and faculty) which will help inform [the portal’s] evolution before it goes live.”
For Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) VP University Affairs Claire Stewart-Kanigan, however, the level of student involvement in the project has been underwhelming so far.
“I have been told that student representatives on last year’s Mental Health Advisory Board were consulted regarding the website’s content as well,” Stewart-Kanigan told The Daily in an email. “However, no SSMU members have been included on the Steering Committee [for the project] since its inception. Student Services has expressed willingness to strengthen their partnership with SSMU since the website’s launch, and we hope to see that be upheld.”
Luker explained that, although the actual grant application was not written by students, it was informed, to an extent, by student input. “We have advisory boards that would have students [… and] ideas are coming out of student groups,” she said.
Luker did note a desire for more student input. “I think we could probably do better. We always try and strive to include more students, and what we had done in the process was have individual students that were involved in the services [relevant to the grant], but I think that what we’ve done now, which is even better, is involve the student unions or the student reps.”
Stewart-Kanigan emphasized that SSMU’s relationship with the project needs to be heightened. “The project was presented to myself and the Mental Health Coordinator several times prior to the October 7 announcement,” said Stewart-Kanigan. “However, the relationship was a consultative arrangement, not a partnership. Given that SSMU is named as a partner on the website, consultation is not enough.”
Limitations of the grant
Given the current university atmosphere of budget cuts and austerity, questions have been raised about the efficiency of using the grant to build the McGill Wellness Portal as opposed to allocating the money to other services.
“Whether this is going to be worth $500,000 – I don’t see how,” Norman Hoffman, the former director of McGill Mental Health Services from 1995 to 2007, told The Daily.
“If you go online, there are hundreds of [self-screening tools], so I don’t know what [McGill is] doing with that money.”
Hoffman suggested that the money could have been used to hire a few additional staff, or to look more broadly at the mental health system at McGill. “People need access to care. The issue is how to provide that access,” he said.
According to Luker, the terms of the grant limit how it can be spent.
“[The grant] is very specific, we’ve tried to expand it as much as we could. One of the main things was that it couldn’t be for salaries because it’s sort of a one-time-only influx of money,” said Luker. She noted that the grant application was also required to include a tangible idea, have a direct and immediate impact on students, be relevant to current trends, be liked by Bell, and be backed up by logical reasoning.
“We’re trying to [increase staff] in parallel,” said Luker. However, a permanent increase in staff would require an increase in student fees, which is something Student Services is hoping to avoid.
Luker also noted that Student Services does vet their funding sources, and that the grant does not come with strings attached. “Bell’s name is branded on the actual tool, but the influence [the company has on the project] is nil.”
Conflicting approaches to mental health issues
Concern with the portal was not limited to the financial realm. Stewart-Kanigan highlighted SSMU’s main reservations about the project.
“The consent of this year’s executive or [the SSMU] Mental Health Committee was not secured for all aspects of the website, namely the self-assessment tool. […] SSMU has expressed discomfort with the use of an exclusively diagnostic/illness-based approach to mental well-being, particularly within the context of self-assessment, and would be more comfortable with a more proactive, wellness-based approach,” she said.
SSMU’s Mental Health Policy, adopted in February and valid for five years, is meant to set the groundwork for “a new culture of community, wellness, awareness, and acceptance of mental health diversity at McGill.” It also dictates that “all students have a right to live and study in an atmosphere that promotes and facilitates wellness and mental and physical health.”
“A website centred around psychiatric self-diagnosis, rather than self-care, peer support, and stigma reduction surrounding mental diversity, does not meet the Policy’s aims,” said Stewart-Kanigan. “We hope to have these concerns met by the time the site is made available to students.”
Hoffman also expressed concern with self-screening, particularly how it fits in with diagnosis-focused mental health treatment. “There is little evidence that screening is of much value. One of the issues is that screening is all diagnosis-oriented,” he said. “Everybody is trying to fit people into these little boxes and that is not appropriate for students. There are other approaches [that] are much more appropriate and lead to much better health.”
Yung and Alfonsi noted that the portal is not meant to give a specific clinical diagnosis. “It is not a substitute for being seen by a healthcare professional,” they wrote.
Mental health at McGill
The number of students seeking mental health resources at McGill has increased substantially over the last few years. According to a report released by McGill Counselling Services in October 2013, over 50 per cent of McGill students identified with symptoms of either anxiety or depression, while 10 per cent had considered suicide while at university. Currently, more than 3,000 students access mental health resources at McGill.
According to Hoffman, the university environment can have a major impact on students’ mental health. “The more student-centred the university is, the more it provides a kind of open emotional environment for students, the better students will be.”
“I do think the new principal is more in tune to [student needs] than [former Principal Heather] Munroe-Blum, who was clearly not student-centric at all, and was in fact quite dismissive of students, but hopefully there will be change,” added Hoffman.
“Mentorship with students is important, and providing that space, providing a support system. The more bureaucratic the university becomes, the less that is provided. There are problems right from the top that need to be addressed.”