On Thursday, Sept. 19, McGill rescinded the one-time $20 fee to access its Mental Health Services (MHS), a decision that came in the wake of negative feedback about the added financial burden to users of those services. We applaud the responsiveness this decision demonstrates on the part of the university. However, it is only one small step in the right direction, and more must be done to promote wellness on campus.
The importance of mental health to McGill students was underscored by the administration’s swift about-face on the fee, which was announced at the beginning of September. These services were also a major talking point during the most recent election cycle for the executive of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), as both presidential candidates advocated improvements to the university’s mental health services in their platforms. Last year also saw the first Mental Health Awareness Week hosted on campus.
Mental health is an issue that deserves serious consideration by the McGill community. According to statistics revealed by then-Deputy Provost for Student Life and Learning Morton Mendelson at a March Senate meeting—in response to a question from a Senate member—McGill Mental Health Services (MHS) saw a 25 per cent increase in new students and a 20 per cent increase in emergency drop-in visits from previous years.
The number of students hospitalized at the McGill University Health Center (MUHC) in the Fall 2012 term was 14—a seven-fold increase from the average of approximately one to two cases per term.
Still, mental health services are often overloaded. As of this week, wait times for initial appointments are often two and a half to three weeks. According to the statistics revealed in the March Senate meeting, the wait time for a regular therapy visit can go as long as five weeks, and during exam periods, the wait for an initial visit goes up to six weeks. Improving these wait times would require a reallocation of the university’s already limited budgetary resources; the money to support rescinding the fee is being reshuffled from a yet-to-be-identified portion of the Student Life and Learning portfolio.
A major issue is that students often don’t know of on-campus alternatives, such as McGill Counselling Services, a distinct branch of McGill Student Services. Counselling takes a different approach from MHS, less focused on perscription-based solutions and more focused on therapy. Wait times for this service are generally shorter than for MHS, with diagnostic appointments available—as of this week—as soon as a day after a drop-in intake visit.
Counselling also offers a wide array of workshops, including stress reduction techniques, and coping with perfectionism. A simple way that McGill could promote wellness is by increasing awareness of these services. Additionally, McGill could facilitate a list of off-campus mental health services, including info on fees, location, and language to increase student options.
Student-run resources include McGill Nightline, a listening and referal service, and the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS). None of these services should be considered a replacement for a properly staffed MHS, but students in some situations may find these better places to seek help.
One of the most important steps toward advancing mental health at McGill is reducing the stigma associated with seeking help, and normalizing discussion of mental health on our campus. Too often, students feel ashamed in looking for guidance in times of crisis; what made the now-rescinded fee so pernicious was that it hit students right at the moment they were least equipped to deal with another roadblock getting assistance with their issues.
While students do need to seek out help, once they come to the door they should be treated with the utmost respect and humanity, traits that are often lacking from the rest of the university’s vast bureaucracy.
Talking about these issues is the first step to improving awareness. To that end, we welcome initiatives like the upcoming Students in Mind conference this weekend, Oct. 5, for opening up the conversation.
It is imperative that ongoing progress on these issues continues, even in this environment of constraint.