Outside of the mental health services office
Ryerson University is reaffirming its commitment to provide mental health services for a problem that has reached crisis proportions on campus.
Juannittah Kamera, Ryerson’s health promotion co-ordinator, and Ryerson president Sheldon Levy, both said Monday that the school is committed to promoting mental health services on campus.
But with long wait times, students wonder if the university is doing enough.
“(Attempting suicide) is the best way to bypass wait lines and it shouldn’t be that way,” said Kristen Bellows, a recent Ryerson graduate who’s lived with depression since she was 16. She now volunteers with Madvocates, a peer group at Ryerson.
“When you’re in crisis, you need something right now. You don’t want to be told that you have to wait even three days.”
Bellows knows how quickly suicide can slip into everyday thoughts. She tried taking her own life in high school.
At Ryerson, wait times are on the rise because of an “unprecedented increase in students seeking care,” according to Su-Ting Teo, Ryerson’s director of student health and wellness. The exploding number of students seeking help is a troubling trend, Teo said. She estimates that there was an increase of 300 per cent in “very severe” cases this year alone. The timeline for student stress also shifted this academic year. High demand for counselling usually begins in October and November, when students feel overwhelmed with school work. But this year, it started in September.
“From Day one, students were in crisis already,” said Teo.
New students are prioritized according to the severity of their issues as opposed to a “first-come, first-served” basis. If an incoming student is at risk for suicide or reports suicidal thoughts, the centre gets them a therapist within 24 hours. If that’s not possible, staff send the student to the medical centre on campus.
“No one is ever turned away, as in, ‘Sorry, we can’t help you, good luck,’” said Kamera.
But one student said that this is exactly what happened to him. The student, who doesn’t want to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the topic, recently graduated from Ryerson. While attending the school last year, he said he didn’t receive care and wasn’t given a referral by the centre when he requested help. After an initial assessment, the person he spoke with at the counselling centre pushed him to try an academic counsellor. But the student knew that academics wasn’t the problem.
“I said, ‘No, I don’t think so,’ and this went back and forth about five times before I broke down and said, ‘My grades are fine, I need help with other aspects of my life,’” he said.
The employee told him that help simply wasn’t available at the counselling centre.
“After getting that reaction and being told I needed an academic counsellor when I knew that wasn’t it, I put up my back.”
He said the centre phoned him back three to four months after he was denied to tell him a placement was available. He didn’t take the appointment. This year, Ryerson’s mental health push began with a week-long campaign in October. President Sheldon Levy initiated it after three students committed suicide at Queen’s University in one academic year.
“When the Queen’s episode happened, I remember coming back to the university and saying, ‘Let’s look at all of our statistics, let’s meet with people to see what challenges the university has,’” said Levy. “And the information (showed) that we should be doing a lot more.”
It’s an initiative that’s close to Levy’s heart — a member of his immediate family suffered from mental illness. Despite the verbal push, there haven’t been any mental health events since October. Teo said that so far, there’s no plan for action on campus. At the moment, her department is organizing a steering committee for the cause. The Centre for Student Development and Counselling has an average annual budget of $900,000, according to Teo. This year, the centre was granted a reserve fund of $30,000 to hire extra counsellors.
More than six per cent of Ryerson students have seriously considered suicide, according to a 2010 survey by the National College Health Assessment. The same study found that 61 per cent of students surveyed indicated feeling lonely, while 56 per cent reported overwhelming anxiety.
Teo said it’s hard to know why this is happening at Ryerson, but pointed to an alarming trend across the province.
“Other schools are seeing this high demand, the general community is seeing this demand, so it’s probably some broader societal issues that are contributing to this,” she said.
Mental health is becoming “an increasingly challenging issue” in post-secondary institutions across Canada, according to a 2011 report by the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services. It’s clear that mental illness isn’t going away any time soon for students, but Bellows said that landing an appointment on campus — and on time — is the key to recovery. A manageable inner problem can become self-destructive in seconds, especially while waiting for treatment that feels as if it will never come.
“(Suicide) can happen very quickly. With me, I decided to do it, and then a few seconds later, I attempted it,” said Bellows. “When I got put on this list I just wanted to fine-tune some skills, but now I’m like, ‘Please help me, make sure I don’t destroy myself.’”