By: Mary-Kate MacDonald and Graham Colby

The demanding environment of universities makes students more susceptible to mental health and wellness issues. A recent study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health found that approximately 30 percent of post-secondary students report as having four or more symptoms of augmented stress.

Counselling services are a common and effective method of dealing with mental health issues. Students at McMaster can access personal, group and psychiatric counselling through the Student Wellness Centre. More information about the available services can be found at http://wellness.mcmaster.ca/.

While the services are available, the efficacy of these services is rarely questioned publicly due to the stigma of mental health. Here are four accounts from students describing their experiences with the counselling services available at McMaster. Their names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

Emily’s Story

Emily had overwhelming feelings of depression and anxiety that had bottled up over a couple months. However, she kept putting off going to personal counselling. After finding some spare time, she finally went to the walk-in counselling hours.

“The waiting room was terrifying,” Emily said. She did not know what to expect and was scared she would not be able to articulate her emotions.

With the counsellor, Emily filled out a questionnaire aimed to determine her rationale for using the services. For Emily, the questionnaire was a helpful tool to bring about personal awareness of her emotions, including suicidal thoughts.

Emily described the counsellor as empathetic and understanding.

“The counsellor was a great outlet because she wasn’t there to judge,” said Emily.

Despite this helpful session, Emily realized that due to issues of understaffing, personal counselling services could not adequately address her issue. Wanting more support, she took the counsellor’s advice and attended group counselling.

Emily was hesitant about group therapy, but she had already developed a rapport with this counsellor, who was running the group entitled “Exploring Anxiety,” so she consistently attended weekly meetings.

She found the environment to be calming and respectful because students were able to choose how much they wanted to share, and could just listen if that is what they wanted.

“I wanted a safe space, and it was,” Emily said of her experience.

Emily is still attending the group and highly recommends it to other students with anxiety issues.

Leo’s Story

Leo had encountered issues of anxiety in high school. Most often they were related to having a moral dilemma being around others under the influence of alcohol or drugs. At university, this affected his relationships with others and he decided to make an appointment for personal counselling.

“The phone call was the most intimidating part,” Leo said, adding that he would have preferred an option to email the SWC to make an appointment instead.

Leo said that the stigma of using these services went away after the initial meeting. He realized that it was not a sign of weakness, but strength in trying to create a personal change.

Leo felt that the receptionist judged his situation urgent and he obtained an appointment with a counsellor at SWC within a couple days.

Leo felt that the counsellor seemed to genuinely care about his issues. She urged him to book another appointment because she felt there was greater depth to his concerns. Because of the waitlist, his next appointment was in six weeks.

Leo described feeling better during the session, but that the effects were not apparent in his daily life. He asked about how to obtain a diagnosis and was referred to a physician.

Leo made a general 30-minute appointment with a doctor at the SWC and discussed his issues. The doctor established that Leo was experiencing generalized anxiety and depression and referred him to the campus psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist confirmed the initial doctor’s thoughts and also identified a rare personality disorder. As summer approached, the psychiatrist recommended medication.

Leo felt comfortable with the psychiatrist and felt liberated to have a diagnosis.

“It wasn’t just my fault, something was actually wrong. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t trying hard enough,” Leo said.

Leo said the most beneficial part of the services were that he was able to explore his issues of mental health without getting his parents involved.

Leo would recommend other students who are having mental health issues to explore the services offered through SWC.

He described his case as a success, but stressed that the maintenance of good mental health was difficult to achieve with the severely low number of counsellors and long wait times between appointments for personal counselling.

Sam’s Story

During the school year, Sam was suffering from debilitating anorexia. She was hospitalized, and her weight class was too low for her to be accepted into outpatient programs at St. Joseph Hospital. Her options were either to remain in hospital or seek help through the SWC, and she opted for the latter.

“The frontline staff were really nice but it was an inconsistent service depending on who you had,” Sam said when asked about her experience with SWC.

Sam felt her confidentiality was not respected, as she was not aware that her personal information was being shared with other counsellors during weekly meetings.

Her situation remained serious enough that a doctor at SWC was trying to coerce her into the hospital. Sam called the Ontario patient rights organization to better understand her options.  She compared this experience to being treated like a child with mental health issues rather than an adult capable of making her own decisions.

“I was working against the Student Wellness Centre rather than with them.”

Sam would recommend the SWC as she adamantly supports seeking help through all available means. However, in her opinion, alternative resources can be more beneficial.

The SWC provided an opportunity for Sam to get help. The staff treating her would add appointments to their day to see her.  These services and care were made available particularly because of her extreme circumstances.

“You shouldn’t have to be in such a crisis like I was to obtain sufficient services. You shouldn’t need to be in crisis mode to warrant that level of care,” she said.

Ryan’s Story

Ryan has feelings of anxiety and depression. In his first year, Ryan went to the campus doctor who recommended he consult his family doctor and take aspirin. Four years later, Ryan went to the SWC when these emotions persisted and he was considering suicide.

After seeing a counsellor, he was referred to the staff doctor.

A routine developed where Ryan would see the doctor bi-weekly, but as time progressed the reception staff informed him he could only make 20-minute same-day appointments. This means that Ryan often goes significant periods of time without seeing a doctor due to scheduling conflicts.

Ryan described the system as incredibly frustrating because there was constant uncertainty while he waited for potential appointments.

“It’s a battle. I can’t understand why I can’t book in advance,” he said. This lack of understanding leaves Ryan feeling as though the staff are discouraging students from seeking help.

Ryan also identifies with the stigma surrounding mental health.

“I don’t mind people knowing I’m sick but I’d rather they don’t look at me as suicidal.”

Despite the struggles and conflicts in trying to receive care, Ryan values discussing his issues medical professional. Talking to someone on campus is convenient for him but he would like more accessible services.

Ryan would recommend the services at the SWC and considers himself lucky that the doctor he sees seems to be this caring, because he believes they easily could have disregarded his issues as a medical concern.

Students deserve more

The students interviewed here encountered varying degrees of success through their experience with the SWC. Despite the SWC’s best efforts, it appears their services are strained, because they have to turn people away for weeks or condense serious issues into a 20-minute conversation.

It is not always possible for students to use private services, but the issues of accessibility to SWC services make it difficult to mend issues of mental health at McMaster.

We don’t want to undermine the current efforts on campus, but students need and deserve more.

It is a dangerous game throwing a band-aid on an infected wound and hoping it gets better. Mental health is no different. The damage worsens if left untreated.

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