UVic attacks student depression with multi-pronged program

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Like other universities in Canada, UVic has a growing problem with student depression, and UVic Counselling Services is having difficulty managing. There are 10 counsellors to deal with the entire student body (approximately one counsellor per 2 000 students), plus a designated counsellor for indigenous students. Counselling Serivces has been compelled to develop a list of off-campus counsellors who will see students on a sliding-fee scale.

Unless students book an appointment in the first week of a term, the wait time for a counselling session can be up to a month. In the past, Counselling Services would hire a seasonal counsellor for times of increased need. But because of 1.5 per cent budget cuts to university departments this academic year (and planned budget cuts of 4 per cent in the next two years), Counselling Services is reviewing its policies to change the way student depression is dealt with. This new approach will include seminars to help students, staff and faculty in psychological first aid. Participants will learn to identify the signs of emotional distress and depression and know what to do.

According to Rita Knodel, PhD, a registered psychologist and director of Counselling Services, “Seventy per cent of students at the University of Victoria are students from other areas of the country or are from other countries. As a result, many students have no social support system to help them cope with the life changes that students typically face in their late teens and early 20s.”  She adds that some students may give up regular meals, sleep and exercise due to heavy study schedules. “This by itself can lead to depression and anxiety without the added difficulties of unresolved psychological issues such as separation anxiety if this is the first time moving away from home or moving to a new city.”

One solution is drop-in appointments. Students can call at 8:30 a.m. and ask for an appointment that day. Counselling Services typically holds four to six appointments for urgent needs. There are also check-in blocks two to three times a week where people are dealt with on a first-come, first-serve basis for 20-minute sessions with a counsellor, similar to a walk-in clinic. These options are available for all students.

Knodel says Counselling Services often books multiple appointments on the hour. “We hold appointments for 10 minutes, so if someone doesn’t show or is late, or someone doesn’t call ahead to say that they are going to be late, that appointment is given up to someone else.  So if someone comes in and is just patient . . . they can wait 10 minutes and they can get that spot.” She adds that, if you’re persistent, you can usually get in within a day or two.

The increase in demand for services is substantial. In September 2012, Maclean’s ran a cover article entitled “Campus crisis: the broken generation,” which reported on a 2011 survey at the University of Alberta. Of the 1 600 students surveyed, many were so depressed that it was difficult to function (34.4 per cent), experienced overwhelming anxiety (52.1 per cent) or were overwhelmed by what needed to be done (87.5 per cent), and some had seriously considered suicide (6.8 per cent).

Knodel says new factors have contributed to student mental health issues. “The career opportunities at the end of a degree are different, for example. We are now looking at engineering students or nursing students that are at the end of their degrees and not being able to get work.” She adds, “Competition is probably higher in some programs than it used to be. I think that stress is always high, that university or post-secondary is stressful — it’s meant to be a challenge. [But there is] a fine line between when a student feels challenged or overwhelmed.”

The increase in student depression may also be a reaction to increasing pressure from family.

“Sometimes parents put a lot of pressure on students to go into certain programs. I think some of those pressures have probably intensified over the years,” says Knodel.

Knodel has consulted with the Canadian and American counselling authorities on ways to combat student depression, stress and anxiety and found that simply adding more counsellors is not a very effective answer. A much better approach according to Knodel is to work with students and faculty to create a less stressful environment on campus and to train peer helpers to appropriately react to signs of stress and depression. Counselling Services runs a peer-helping program out of its office. The goal is to train students to talk to other students who are struggling and then, if necessary, refer them to counselling services, “rather than just bring crying students to Counselling Services and drop them off with us, as typically happens now,” says Knodel.

Knodel offers some words of encouragement to those who are experiencing depression or believe that they may start to. “What I like to tell people is that feeling depressed after prolonged periods of stress is normal.”

The Counselling Services office expects to launch its new awareness program in the fall of 2013.  For information about the programs from Counselling Services, go to coun.uvic.ca, call 250-721-8341 or schedule an appointment in the University Centre on the second floor, room B270.