Access to mental health aid at Humber is inadequate

by | Dec 11, 2015 | Life

Brianne Cail
Life Editor 

When it comes to mental health, Humber needs to change the way it handles its services if they want to provide the support their students need.

“I think that Humber’s intentions are good with its existing [counselling] services, but I don’t believe the school is doing enough for its students.”

This comes from Rebecca Kennedy, 25 and in her second year of the public relations advanced diploma program at Humber’s Lakeshore campus.

Kennedy started off this school year in a bad place with depressive episodes coming and going, questions of dropping out of school and not being able to physically leave her home. She missed classes and her work suffered as a result.

“When I could make it to campus it was difficult to pay attention during lectures. I could feel a disconnect, and I had no idea how to fix it,” said Kennedy. “One morning, after missing another class, I called counselling services because I had reached a point where I knew I needed to speak to someone.”

When she approached counseling services, they were booked and Kennedy was turned away.

“When I asked to be scheduled in for the following day I was told that they only accepted walk-ins or same-day appointments.”

Kennedy was forced to go outside of school services to receive help, which as she pointed out, isn’t an option for some students. There can be multiple reasons for this but transportation and the finances involved can add to the difficulty.

“It felt like a door had been shut in my face. I was at a really low point, I needed to talk to someone outside of family and friends, and to be told that I would have to go to the office or call the next day for a chance to get an appointment only increased the overwhelming feeling of defeat I was battling,” said Kennedy.

This is why Kennedy thinks that the existing policy is flawed and that Humber should change the way its counselling services operated.

“I live in a town with 2 per cent of Toronto’s population and I can’t afford counselling services, which is why Humber’s services are a crucial resource for me. If there’s concern of no-shows for appointments, a fee would suffice. It’s far better than the prospect of students in need being turned away.”

Meg Houghton, the director of the Student Access and Wellness Centre, said that same day appointments were introduced to reduce no-show rates, which were very high.

“We need to ensure that appointments are available for students who most need them.”

Yet when Kennedy was turned away, before the urgency of her situation was known.

“It made me wonder what someone requiring emergency counselling would have felt if they’d received the same message: ‘Sorry, try again.’ It made me resentful that I hadn’t expressed the urgency of my situation, and then I realized that I shouldn’t have to disclose that information just to get my foot in the door,” said Kennedy.

Houghton gave the assurance that even when services are booked students who are in urgent need of support would still be seen by a nurse for rapid mental health assessment.

“The system needs to be fixed before worst-case hypotheticals become realities,” added Kennedy.

As far as what more Humber can offer, it’s easier said than done and there are a lot of other factors to consider, but Kennedy thinks that a fall reading week could help students adjust to college life. A number of post-secondary schools across Canada, 55 per cent as of 2014, offer a full week break in the fall as well as the February break offered at Humber.

“Fall reading week would be a good start to alleviate some pressure for students,” said Kennedy.

Her reasoning is that the fall semester can be a hard adjustment for new students, and holds stress-inducing holidays, with Thanksgiving and Christmas, as well as the beginning of less daylight, which can leave some people feeling the effects of seasonal depression, known as seasonal affective disorder.

“A break of some sort — be it a full week or even a few days — would give students the chance to catch up on work, relax, recalibrate and get back on track for the rest of the semester,” Kennedy said.

Humber sometimes holds events to help relieve stress for students around this time of the semester. Earlier this month, North campus held a Resiliency (Stress) Map Assessment & Workshop that was meant to help students improve their self-awareness, which could help with personal health, work performance and managing stress. On Tuesday, also at North, LinX helped students take their mind off school by hosting a puppy room in the afternoon.

Another benefit for students, Kennedy suggested, was a memo or sensitivity training of sorts for teachers regarding mental health concerns within their classrooms.

In 2014, all full-time School of Media Studies faculty had to participate in a two-day workshop entitled “Mental Health First Aid” at North campus.

“In my experience, the typical response to class concern regarding an overly stressful/heavy workload is, essentially, for us to ‘deal with it.’”

Kennedy understands and thinks most students are aware that after college you don’t have the option of not going to work and won’t have as flexible deadlines as in school but notes that the stress can affect education.

“Forcing students to confront overwhelming stress and anxiety when we may not be equipped to do so completely undercuts our education. It becomes more an issue of learning how to pass a class and not actually learning the material.”

In the fall Humber did offer a Mental Health First Aid workshop for staff at both campuses. The eight hour day provided information about common mental health problems as well as specific disorders. Besides teaching faculty, support staff and administrators to recognize signs of an issue, the workshop had the purpose of minimizing the fear and hesitation to become involved when a person thinks someone is experiencing a mental health concern. These workshops would be helpful but are not mandatory for staff to participate in as part of training.

The experience can change for the student from teacher to teacher. Kennedy had a professor last year that brought balls and balloons into the classroom for the students to play with before they had their final exam. Just ten minutes of playing around with her classmates helped Kennedy relax before starting the exam.

“When I sat down to write I didn’t feel as anxious as I had moments before. It’s something as simple as that that improves a situation.”

This year Humber launched a Student Lifeline, which offers free legal advice and free financial advice on top of mental health and counselling help.

“Student Lifeline is a 24/7 service that students can access either by calling a number or visiting the website,” said Ahmed Tahir the president of Humber Students’ Federation.

The lifeline is meant to provide short-term counselling, different resources online and on campus, even just on everyday issues. The service can be used by any student, like those in immediate crisis or those who don’t feel comfortable booking an in-person appointment. Tahir said that the service is already benefitting students greatly, and he thinks it will continue to do so in a big way.

“Access to counselling can be difficult to come by, and sometimes students do not feel comfortable taking that step of physically walking into a counselling office. This is a great service that supplements the great counselling that Humber offers.”

Kennedy, being a student who struggles with mental health issues knows the importance of being able to illuminate the strengths, weaknesses and areas of improvement for services at Humber.

“There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to managing mental health, and I think opening up a two-way channel of communication is essential to field questions and get suggestions from students to create a healthier and more positive experience for all.”