EDITORIALS  Mental Health Services Now, Renovations Later

February 1-7 marks SSMU’s first time participating in National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. The McGill administration, however, has been criticized for cancelling its Eating Disorder Program (EDP) in 2017, and for not providing sufficient mental health services to students. On January 28, Principal Suzanne Fortier announced a new university investment: the $14 million Rossy Wellness Hub. This “new approach to student mental health and well-being,” funded partly by a one million dollar donation from the Rossy Foundation, has led to McGill receiving widespread praise for its commitment to mental health. While Fortier emphasizes her concern for the “holistic wellness” of students, the administration’s actions, or lack thereof, speak otherwise. The administration has continuously cut back funding for student services and failed to address student concerns regarding inadequate mental health services.

According to a press release, the Rossy Wellness Hub aims to consolidate all of Student Services’ “health-related resources” into one “inviting space where students can relax before appointments.” Thirteen million dollars will be committed to the project over seven years, approximately two-thirds of which will be directly funded by McGill. This project claims to create an integrated space for all of these services, yet both Health Services and Counseling and Psychiatric Services are already located in the same building. This plan ultimately fails to tackle the ongoing issue with McGill’s mental health services: an inadequate number of counselors and psychiatrists, as well as a lack of effective, timely, and specialized treatment. McGill needs to promptly invest in improving its existing mental health services, instead of pouring millions into helping fund the new “Wellness Hub.”

This construction comes on the heels of previous cuts to mental health resources, as well as efforts from McGill to shift to a stepped-care model, which included triaging mental health needs. While the transition to this model was an attempt to shorten wait times, it has been criticized for providing impersonal and insufficient treatment. Moreover, Counseling and Psychiatric Services struggle to meet increasing student demand due to an insufficient number of psychotherapists and psychiatrists on staff. This results in longer waitlists for an intake appointment, extended wait times before consultations, fewer available appointments, and less frequent counseling sessions. In fact, the current wait time for an intake appointment at Psychiatric Services is three months. In addition, students must wait a week for emergency mental health appointments, which are supposed to be same-day. This endangers students, especially those in high-risk situations.

Moreover, in 2017, McGill closed the EDP without informing students. The program was already understaffed and underfunded, and McGill’s decision to eliminate, rather than improve, the program ultimately left students without a reliable source of treatment or support on campus. The program offered health care and resources to students with eating disorders since 2009, including individual psychotherapy sessions, group therapy, nutrition counseling, and medical follow-ups. It was staffed by a program coordinator, a nurse and nutritionist, a psychiatrist, and a psychotherapist. The EDP assisted about 250 students a year, with 50 to 70 students seeking regular treatment. According to Executive Director of McGill Student Services Martine Gauthier, the reason for the closure was largely because the administration deemed it “financially irresponsible” to dedicate $500,000 of the Student Services’ $11 million budget to the EDP. The program’s resources were redistributed elsewhere within Student Services, but those specific to eating disorders, including group therapy and meal support groups, were eliminated altogether.

Studies have found that eating disorders often arise in college, and can easily be exacerbated by academic stress and anxiety. Students seeking support are now directed to the already understaffed and ill-equipped Counseling and Psychiatric services, or to clinics outside of McGill. Kristie Mar, a student at McGill, is working to create a SSMU club to provide support for students struggling with eating disorders. The goal is to increase awareness of eating disorders, fundraise to support clinics in Montreal, and bring workshops for students, support group meetings, and so on to McGill’s campus.*

Students should not have to demand accessible and effective health care. The burden of care should not fall on students when they are paying McGill for these services. The administration has long neglected concerns regarding the quality and efficiency of the care it provides, and the solution is not to spend millions on unnecessary renovations. Rather, McGill must dedicate more resources to specialized services for students with eating disorders, and must provide comprehensive mental health care to all students. This involves increasing funding for Student Services and employing more counselors and psychiatrists to meet increasing demand.

SSMU is hosting events from February 1-7 for National Eating Disorder Awareness Week; check out their event page on Facebook for the program.
Visit SSMU’s website for resources for eating disorders: ssmu.ca/ resources/eating-disorders/

*Students wanting to help with this project can contact Kristie at kristiemar26@gmail.com