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(Ava Zwolinski / The McGill Tribune)

McGill Student Services announces new approach toward psychiatric care and fentanyl crisis

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In a press conference on Sept. 14, Hashana Perera, director of Student Health Services, took the floor to present updates on the office’s strategy for addressing the emerging threat of fentanyl in Montreal. The deadly synthetic opioid is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine and has been found laced into powdered drugs at growing rates across Canada. Following recent discussion over students’ growing risk of mistakenly ingesting fentanyl-laced drugs, Perera explained that Student Health Services’ goal was to provide naloxone and drug-testing kits for students, as soon as Quebec legislation permits.

“What we would have wanted to do is have [naloxone] available to you,” Perera said. “Public Health said no. Right now, the only people who can administer it are doctors, nurses, and ambulance [technicians….] We do have it in health services [….] That being said, the best bet is to call 911 right away [in the case of an overdose].”

McGill Student Services addressed other policy changes, announcing the completion of the integration of Counselling and Mental Health Services into a single unit called Counselling Services—a process which began in Fall 2016. As part of this integration process, all psychiatrists have been moved into the new Psychiatric Services unit at the Brown Student Services Building, Suite 5500. Psychiatric Services is working to resolve confusion regarding the appropriate resources for students facing psychological challenges, and to reduce wait times.

“Something that students had said is really confusing [was] ‘we don’t know if we’re supposed to go to Mental Health Services,’” Student Services Executive Director Martine Gauthier, who spearheaded the reform, said at the press conference. “I decided […] to do away with what is called a ‘mental health unit,’ but we're actually expanding mental health services.”

The integration is the latest of many efforts to streamline mental health support at McGill. Before last September, students had to figure out on their own whether to book an appointment at Counselling Services or at Mental Health Services, the latter of which offered both psychiatric care and therapy, while the former offered therapy and advising. Last year, Student Services unified the two departments’ procedures for scheduling and intake. Under that system, known as the Stepped Care model, Client Care Clinicians work as caseworkers for individual students, referring them to the option most suited for them. With the integration of the two departments completed, SSMU Vice-President (VP) University Affairs Isabelle Oke echoed the hopes of Student Services to lessen students’ confusion regarding scheduling and intake.

“It's hopefully going to prevent any bouncing around between services that do similar things,” Oke said. “If you're going to psychiatric services, you'll still have that support from counselling, but it'll be for a very specific reason you'll be going out of counselling. It'll be harder for people to fall through the cracks if they're doing different things.”

The final phase of the integration, which has now been completed, was to bring all clinicians together into adjacent offices on the third floor of the Brown Building. As Gauthier explained, Psychiatric Services will only support students who have a note from a family general practitioner or from a McGill counselor indicating that they require medical assistance.

Last March, an open letter by the McGill Students’ Health Working Group criticized the lack of student and staff consultation over mental health policy, the opacity of Student Services’ overhead funding, and the mismatch between many students’ needs and caseworkers’ skillsets.

In response to these criticisms, Student Services aims to integrate feedback from clients in McGill’s counselling system, establishing positions for students on hiring committees, and adding students to advisory committees on mental health. Gauthier noted that the McGill Community Health and Wellness Strategy includes 22 students on its committee. Gauthier's research indicated that the integration of Counselling Services will reduce wait times.

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