News | Mental Health Forum assures students their concerns are heard

“No way we’ll be able to keep up with the demand,” says Student Services Interim Director

On March 11, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) organized a Mental Health Forum, where members of the McGill community met for an afternoon of in-depth discussion. The forum concluded with a public question and answer period, featuring representatives from Student Services, the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD), the Counselling Service, and McGill Mental Health Service (MMHS).

In recent years, the state of campus mental health services has become an increasingly talked-about issue, with many students calling for better and more accessible care. Over the past few years, SSMU has adopted a five-year mental health plan and incorporated mental health into the portfolio of, first, the VP University Affairs, and more recently of the VP Student Life. Many candidates during this year’s SSMU executive elections and the Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) elections have also run on platforms of mental health.

Now, it would appear that concrete improvements are on the horizon, as a series of reforms are planned which should streamline the current system and allow more students to access the services which better suit their individual needs.

“It’s not just that we’re seeing more students, but that the kinds of treatments they need are going to be more intensive.”

SSMU VP University Affairs Chloe Rourke opened the discussion by asking each representative what their organization was doing to cope with the dramatic increase in students’ use of McGill’s mental health services over the past few years.

Teri Phillips, director of the OSD, said the office has experienced a 250 per cent increase in use in the past five years alone. According to Phillips, adopting a more flexible approach to scheduling, by allowing Skype meetings and implementing drop-in hours, has made OSD services more accessible, and been well received by students.

Associate Clinical Director of MMHS Giuseppe Alfonsi said at the forum, “It’s not just that we’re seeing more students, but that the kinds of treatments they need are going to be more intensive.”

MMHS had recently begun implementing a wider spectrum of lower-intensity approaches to mental health care in order to help as many students as possible, Alfonsi explained, though he acknowledged that this was far from an ideal solution.

“If we’re not able to give, say, individual psychotherapy to every single person that walks through the door, [we should] at least give them something useful in a timely manner that will help them,” Alfonsi said. “So that’s […] the realist approach that we’re taking. I mean, if we got the resources today [to help everyone effectively], remember, it’s a linear [increase in students needing our services], so we’d have to increase that next year, and the year after, and the year after.”

“There’s just no way we’ll be able to keep up with the demand.”

The Interim Senior Director of Student Services, Robyn Wiltshire, stressed the need for McGill’s different mental health providers to work closely together in order to meet students’ needs most effectively.

“There’s no way that we can, within the budget that we have in Student Services […] and within the physical constraints that we have, […] deliver the type of appointments that were available previously to as many students as will demand them, and there’s just no way we’ll be able to keep up with the demand,” said Wiltshire.

However, Wiltshire added that the system could be streamlined by “using technology more effectively,” and implementing more creative and flexible forms of care.

Wiltshire also raised issue with the system requiring students to provide a medical note in order to miss class. Panelists and students alike at the event called the practice time-consuming, vulnerable to abuse, and potentially stressful to navigate. Alfonsi added that currently between 1,000 and 1,500 MMHS appointments every year are solely concerned with medical notes, taking up time that could be better spent on therapy.

One student asked the MMHS representatives present if they would consider re-evaluating their therapists, citing a particularly negative experience with one.

“Last Friday, I went into McGill Mental Health in order to get a paper extension, and I’m currently working to fight against PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder],” said the student. “The therapist, when I went and saw her, she told me that I should have, quote, ‘planned ahead’ on being triggered, and on not being able to [write] my paper properly […] I really find [it] kind of inappropriate that she would say something like that, especially since I have mental health [issues] and anxiety.”

Alfonsi and Nancy Low, the Clinical Director of MMHS, assured the student that their feedback was valuable. The clinical staff is reviewed every semester, said Low, and held accountable to students’ concerns. Alfonsi added that MMHS generally responds to student complaints within 48 hours, and has tried to highlight opportunities for students to leave feedback both online and on paper at the MMHS office.

“I was clearly not [suicidal], but there was no other choice. […] There doesn’t seem to be that middle ground.”

Another student told Low and Alfonsi that, having come to MMHS to get help during a moment of crisis, they had been presented with just two options: either join a several-week-long waiting list for a one-on-one appointment with a doctor, or to be put on suicide watch.

“I was clearly not [suicidal], but there was no other choice. […] There doesn’t seem to be that middle ground,” said the student.

Cases like this, said Alfonsi, highlight the need for the kind of step-care model that MMHS is currently working toward, which would provide a range of different levels of assistance based on the individual needs of students. A representative from Counselling Service added that implementing a common triage process between all branches of McGill mental health services should also help prevent such incidents.

Wiltshire explained that the concerns raised in the discussion would be brought to the Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Ollivier Dyens, as Wiltshire and Dyens meet regularly.

“If there are issues that come up in the student press, if there are issues that are raised by SSMU or PGSS [Post-Graduate Students’ Society of McGill] or one of the other student associations, we’re called to task, and we’re asked to report,” explained Wiltshire. “I have a set of objectives […] and they have to do with the service improvements that we’re talking about and […] the policy changes that we’re trying to advocate for. […] As I said, we’re doing a lot of work, and we’re going to do it very quickly, and we’re going to do it properly, and we are consulting with students.”