New mental health strategy from Student Affairs

Mount Allison’s department of Student Affairs has implemented a new mental health strategy. As a result, several new initiatives and services have been introduced to campus. These include the addition of a part-time psychiatrist, mental health first-aid training for more residence staff, the appointment of a new mental health educator and a new mental health website.

While the strategy is unique to Mt. A, it is based on a framework developed by the Canadian Association of College and University Student Service Providers (CACUSS) along with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).

According to Anne Comfort, director of accessibility and student wellness at Mt. A, the aim of the strategy is to create “a systematic approach to addressing mental health and wellness on campus for all of the community.”

The new part-time psychiatrist will be available to students as of mid-November.  Students with a referral can book an appointment through the Wellness Centre. Psychiatrists generally provide more specialized care than counsellors or psychologists, especially for individuals with multiple mental illnesses and/or medications.

Melissa Baxter has been hired as the campus mental health educator. Baxter has worked for seven years with the CMHA. Her role will be to promote positive mental health initiatives and awareness on campus through workshops, pet therapy and other events.

Baxter also wants to work with student groups to promote the de-stigmatization of mental illness on campus. “Stigma is still a significant barrier in accessing mental health services,” she said. “Awareness of available services can also be an issue – people can’t access services if they don’t know about them.”

Students living with mental illness often face unique struggles that are not always addressed at an institutional level. Though there are pre-existing services in place, such as psychologists or advocates at the Meighen Centre, not all students know of or feel comfortable accessing these services due to social stigma.

A part-time psychiatrist will soon be available on campus. Hailey Guzik/Argosy
A part-time psychiatrist will soon be available on campus. Hailey Guzik/Argosy

Access to services is often dependent on a concrete diagnosis. This can be difficult for students from low-income backgrounds, as sessions with a clinical psychologist can be between $100 and $150 per hour. Under the MASU insurance plan, students can access up to $1,000 for counselling services, raised from $600 in the 2015-16 academic year. Up to $750 is also allocated for taxi transportation to and from appointments. Even though psychologists are available here part-time, many students travel to Moncton or elsewhere due to wait times or needing a specialized psychologist.

Caroline Kovesi, a fifth-year sociology student living with anxiety and perfectionism, believes that more could be done to support students living with mental illness.

Kovesi said that while many professors have been accommodating of her needs, the structure of many courses should better reflect the reality that many students live with mental illness.

She stressed that some faculty members do not provide accommodations for mental illness.

“I have encountered significant ableism and sanism over my time at university from professors. When you hear that from someone you look up to and are trying to learn from, it’s incredibly invalidating and has had a serious impact on how I think about myself,” Kovesi said.

Kovesi would also like to see extended hours for mental health services, full-time psychologists and support groups run by counsellors, in addition to the new initiatives.

Month-long wait times to access counsellors or psychologists, which has been the standard in the past, can pose a risk to students with immediate needs.

Kovesi believes that in addition to mental-health first aid, residence staff should also be trained in suicide crisis intervention.

Hanna Longard, a third-year biology student and executive member of Change Your Mind, said that we need to promote an open dialogue on campus about mental health and illness.

“I think in university a lot of things come to the surface,” Longard said. “It’s an environment where there are so many life changes and different pressures that can cause underlying mental health issues to arise or further isolate those already living with mental illness.”

Longard said that “Mt. A is good at creating mental health awareness,” but added that “historically, [it has] fallen short in the ability to meet demands for mental illness support.”

Though the new strategy and initiatives offer significant changes, it remains to be seen if the concerns and needs of students living with mental illness will be properly addressed.

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