Students detail long wait times for mental health services

Campus News

UVic launching new Student Wellness Centre, 24/7 mental health phone line, and same-day appointments 

Graphic of person feeling the long wait times for mental health services
Graphic by Sie Douglas-Fish

This article discusses mental health. Please be forewarned that this content may be traumatic or disturbing for some readers. 

Mary* was hesitant about visiting the hospital. 

But, frustrated by the various mental health clinics she’d been directed to over the past seven months, she picked up the phone to call a suicide help line — hoping the service would have an option to access counselling within a couple days. 

Instead, they suggested she visit the Royal Jubilee Hospital and go into Victoria Psychiatric Emergency Services (PES). 

When she voluntarily admitted herself to the PES in November 2017, she knew it wasn’t going to be a good time. But she didn’t expect to be sitting in a chair for 36 hours, waiting with a half dozen other people in the midst of mental health crises.

As new people were being brought in by police and acting violent or loud, Mary says she was given antipsychotic tranquilizers — even though she doesn’t have psychosis and has no trouble sleeping.

She was ultimately referred to Island Health’s Urgent and Adult Short Term Assessment and Treatment (USTAT). Although it would take two weeks before Mary could see a counsellor, receiving regular counselling through the depths of her worst depression proved to be a significant help. 

As she neared the end of her time at USTAT, Mary looked back on the daunting process of finding help. Her therapist suggested she may have to go through the hospital again to find help within a reasonable timeframe. 

“I recall my therapist saying, ‘If you ever have to come back, unfortunately the most efficient way is to go back to the hospital,’” says Mary nearly three full years later to the Martlet. “She’s like, ‘I know it’s absolutely horrible, but that’s the quickest way you can get access to ongoing counselling in the community.’”

Frustration with long wait times 

Mary completed both her undergraduate and graduate studies at UVic between 2007 and 2017. She’s battled depression since she was a child and received treatment in her early teenage years. 

Though Mary already knew about UVic’s mental health services, it wasn’t until April 2017 — when her mental health reached a low point — that she contacted the university’s counselling centre. 

It was difficult for her to go out in public at that time, so walking to the University Centre was an undertaking in itself. When she reached the counselling centre, Mary was told they were full for the day. 

Already on the precipice of a mental health crisis, Mary says that news was tough to hear. 

“It’s an individual’s responsibility to take care of their mental health in order to function properly in society,” says Mary. “So having this feeling of ‘I’m doing the right thing to obtain counselling,’ but when those services are difficult or even unattainable it feels like a huge failure.” 

The next day, she got an appointment, and eventually received regular counselling from Peterson Health Centre at UVic for four months until August of 2017 — when she was informed her counsellor’s contract had run out. She was then referred to Citizens’ Counselling, a counselling service offered to adults in Greater Victoria on a “sliding fee” scale. 

Mary says she was unable to receive help in the time she needed with Citizens’ Counselling. Unsure where to go, Mary returned to Peterson Health Centre — who referred Mary back to UVic counselling, the same spot where Mary first looked to obtain counselling seven months earlier, before she ultimately sought help at Royal Jubilee hospital in November and received counselling at USTAT.  

Last month, various UVic students submitted their personal experiences with the university’s counselling and medical services on an Instagram page. Among the posts, many anonymous submissions detail long waits as factors increasing their anxiety. 

“So having this feeling of ‘I’m doing the right thing to obtain counselling,’ but when those services are difficult or even unattainable it feels like a huge failure.”

– Mary

Christie*, an English and French major who graduated in 2019, received news that her uncle was diagnosed with a terminal illness that spring. 

After breaking down at work, Christie knew she needed to get help. She reached out to UVic mental health services about seeing a counsellor, but was told that all spots were full and that she should come back the next day. It took her three tries to book an appointment. 

Anxiety and mental health affect many students at UVic. In a 2013 survey, the university found that 20 per cent of the 1454 student respondents received mental health help from UVic within the previous 12 months. Furthermore, in a Student Mental Health strategy planned for 2014-2017, UVic found there were 7 955 visits to a general practitioner for mental health help from April 2012 to March 2013. 

A study by the National College Health Assessment reported that 70 per cent of students at UVic reported feeling overwhelming anxiety in 2018. 90 per cent felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of tasks they had to complete. 

In a statement emailed to the Martlet, the university said they are looking at improving their mental health care by asking for advice from students.  

“While we cannot speak to the specifics of any individual’s Counselling or Health record, we welcome student feedback at the Student Wellness Centre,” said Stephanie Inman, Student Wellness Centre communications and web coordinator, in an email to the Martlet. 

“We want to hear from students about their experiences so that we can continue to improve upon our services to provide the best care.” 

New services, campus resources, and expert advice

After two years of renovations, UVic Counselling relocated their resources — including counsellors and staff — from Peterson Health and University Centre into the new Student Wellness Centre this month. The centre will serve as a one-stop destination for mental health resources, and have space for both multifaith activities and an Indigenous Elder. 

“At UVic Counselling, we strive to make our appointments as accessible as possible, and to give students choice about the types of appointments they access. We offer same-day and pre-booked appointments Monday-Friday,” said Inman. 

Even before COVID-19, UVic Counselling was planning on launching a 24/7 mental health phone line, SupportConnect, for students this September.

“[There are] many different modalities, including telephone counselling, individual online counselling, it can also be in-person with therapists in the community,” says Rita Knodel, Director of Counselling and Multifaith Services. The service also offers counselling in 24 different languages. 

Knodel says she believes SupportConnect will help alleviate appointment backlogs.  

“We’ve got same-day appointments every day for counselling and health … The other piece we have now is this 24/7 service that can also provide backup when we really need it.” 

Also on campus, the UVSS Peer Support Centre is adjusting to offer services online, through Doxi.me, which will allow for students to confidentiality talk about any mental health issues. 

Oak Bay News reported that COVID-19 is causing a spike in demand for youth counselling in Victoria. Scott Kouri, a counsellor at Origins Counselling, suggests students keep a routine as one specific way to look after their mental health. 

“Whether it’s an exercise routine or a waking up and sleep routine, eating routines, all these kinds of lifestyle pieces are important to not lose track and have that structure,” he says. 

In terms of wait time response, Kouri says he’s noticed UVic and other universities make a priority to have same-day appointments available. Working in the private sector, Kouri says many counsellors offer consultations before full sessions, and individuals could get on the phone with someone for help that way. 

Other counsellors are stressing the importance for students to maintain social networks during the pandemic.

“One of the things people need to do is bring their support system with them,” said Alyson Jones, President and Clinical Director of Alyson Jones & Associates, in an interview with the Martlet. “If they’re going to another location … make sure they keep connected with the people that they already have as a support system at home.”

Jones added that it’s important for universities to play their role in supporting students’ mental health and that doing so benefits both students and the post-secondary institutions they attend.

For Mary, the hardest part in 2017 was not knowing how long it could take to receive help. 

“UVic isn’t the only place guilty of this. I have extended health [benefits] with my work now and they similarly say, ‘you need help? Call this line,’” she says. “But, again, it’s a one-time thing, not ongoing, long-term, weekly offerings.” 

Mary says her academic department was supportive during her low points, and that, in hindsight, she might have looked at private counselling options. She says long wait times impact all health care services, but more steps should be taken around awareness — specifically, knowledge that the university’s counselling service is similar to that of a community walk-in clinic.

“At the time it feels like it’s your fault or you’re doing it wrong because of the way these services are advertised,” says Mary. “But in retrospect it’s like ‘no, most of if not all of that was not my fault.’” 

With files from Alec Lazenby

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of sources.