Citizens With Disabilities - Ontario


Schools Struggle To Keep Up With Need For Mental Health Services

Surging enrolment, more complicated cases strain resources available to troubled students

Tim Shufelt, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Saturday, May 03, 2008

As enrolment in Canadian colleges and universities hovers around record levels, campus counsellors struggle to cope with a surge in students suffering from emotional distress, depression and mental illness.

The resources dedicated to treating troubled students have not grown in proportion to rising campus populations, said Phil Wood, dean of students at McMaster University.

"We are unable to offer the same service we did 10 years ago, for example, when one might expect to see a councillor and have followup visits. Now we're more into group therapy. I guess 'strained' is the right word," Mr. Wood said.

And the cases are getting more and more difficult to treat, he said. "Bipolar disorder, for example, compounded with behaviour issues. We are seeing more of these things."

According to the American College Health Association's 2006 analysis of student mental health, suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students.

"It feels like we're overwhelmed. Counsellors, especially at this time of year, are very tired because it's been a long year and some of the cases we've had are pretty difficult to manage," said Donald Martin, manager of the University of Ottawa's counselling service.

Symptoms of mental illness tend to emerge as exam time approaches, when students are "running out of time and money and hope and energy," he added.

To reach out to students wrestling with personal problems, the university has decentralized its counselling services over the last several years, Mr. Martin said.

More than 200 student mentors are stationed in various faculties at 15 different drop-in centres across campus.

The volunteer students, who are trained to recognize symptoms of mental illness and suicidal warning signs, can offer a bit of guidance and support before problems get out of hand, Mr. Martin said.

"A lot of times, what they get from peer helpers, helps them manage in a way that otherwise they would have gotten worse and worse and come to us in really bad shape," he said.

But when a student's situation does become dire, staff psychiatrists are indispensable, Mr. Martin said.

"It's very valuable for us to have access same day to psychiatrists. Sometimes quick access to medication or evaluation can make a really big difference. Otherwise we would have to refer them to emergencies of the hospital, and who knows how long it would take before they get to see the right guy," he said.

The need for psychiatrists on campus is growing, but is still far from the norm at universities and colleges in Ontario, Mr. Martin said. "Not very many places can afford that."

Carleton University has one psychiatrist on staff. So does McMaster, for three days of the week with access on off days when required.

McMaster has also spent $200,000 to integrate student health and counselling services. A committee to support students in difficulty also includes campus security and academic advising.

The idea is that different sectors of the school should share information on recognizing the various warning signs of untreated mental illness, including falling grades, brushes with campus authorities, and deteriorating physical and mental health.

Such integration was one of the recommendations of the inquiry into the Virginia Tech massacre last April, when a mentally ill student killed 32 classmates before shooting himself.

"They talked about students falling between the cracks, so the notion is to fill the cracks in and catch a students that's showing up in different offices," Mr. Wood said.

Unfortunately, many suffering students simply never reach out for help, Mr. Wood said. Various studies indicate that just 10 to 20 per cent of American college students who committed suicide had previously sought treatment from campus counsellors.

"People, by and large, tend to keep these things internalized," Mr. Wood said. "If anybody thinks that people will know when your son or daughter's having an issue, that's probably not going to happen."

© The Ottawa Citizen 2008

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