November 14, 2017
Leslie Claire Amminson

Recently, questions arose about whether or not MUN provides adequate services with which to address students’ mental health concerns.

This past week, undergraduate student Elizabeth Dane wrote a letter to Dr. Peter Cornish, associate professor and Director of the Student Wellness and Counselling Centre detailing her concerns with the management of the centre. “I am writing this letter to express my absolute disgust and frustration with the lack of adequate mental health services at Memorial University of Newfoundland” she wrote. “Two years ago, I visited the Student Wellness and Counselling Centre (SWCC) during the walk-in-hours, with a friend who was experiencing a mental health crisis. We waited for 4 hours, and when she was finally called in they claimed that, because they didn’t know her, they could only offer her medication, and she was ultimately denied any possibility of personal counselling services”. Dane’s friend was offered medication, but turned it down.

Dane was not alone in her concerns, and added in an interview “I posted the letter that I wrote on Facebook and I asked people to come forward with their personal experiences [with the centre] so that I could share them with [Dr. Peter Cornish]. So I had this, like, consolidated document of all the people who came to me and their stories and their experiences and it was, like, 20-25 people who came forward”.

When asked why appropriate counselling services are important and necessary, Dane stated, “Of course we’re students, and there’s a lot of pressure in our day to day lives”.

The Muse also spoke to Dr. Cornish, who emphasized that the centre is constantly searching for new ways to improve their services to students. He explained that the centre tries its best to provide students the care that they need, but also to reserve high amounts of attention to the ones who really need it.

The first visit a student makes to the centre operates like a walk-in clinic, he explained. During that first visit, the physicians will do their best to try something quick to solve the problem.

Some students find this quick solution to be a bit rushed. When speaking about the experience Dane had with her friend, she explained, “they offered her meds and she didn’t want them, and they were like ‘well we don’t know you well enough to give you counselling’, which is concerning because they knew her well enough to give her drugs”.

Cornish acknowledged this concern, and explained, “We try to come up with simple solutions first. Some students may find that that’s rushing things too much, but on a first visit, we don’t want somebody to go away without something”. If that first solution does not solve the problem, an individual can return to the centre to seek an alternative.

“What we find is that there’s a small proportion of students that are seriously ill, and they need traditional intensive psychotherapy treatment” he went on “and we do our best to provide that to people. And one of the ways we’re able to help the people who aren’t seriously ill, we give them other options to improve their mental wellness”. He listed workshops, support groups, and shorter check-in visits as alternatives that could be offered.

Cornish admitted there were still some rough spots in their model to deal with. “Are we perfect yet? No. We do expect students to have frustrations and bring them to us,” he stated.

That being said, MUN’s mental health office is a better alternative to many other systems and institutions. It takes approximately eight months to a year to get an appointment for counselling through the health care system, pointing to a larger problem with mental health care in the province.

Compared to other universities, MUN is also not at the bottom. Cornish explained that at McGill University, where there are fifty therapists, there is a wait time of eight weeks, while the wait time for an appointment at MUN is approximately three weeks.

When asked whether he thought the centre could benefit from more staff, Cornish replied “I think we could probably do with a few more, it would be nice to have a few more, but what we find is that changing the way we provide the services, doing it smarter, gets more gain”.

The Student Wellness and Counselling Centre has some plans in place to improve its services to students, including a texting service that will allow students to leave the centre while they wait to be seen by a physician.

There are also other services available at MUN, such as MUN Minds, a non-profit organization made up of students trained in active listening. “We’re MUN students that provide a listening ear to people–we cannot provide advice because we’re not counsellors–but it’s just a chance for someone to vent, you know, just talk about something that’s going on in their life” said Meaghan McKeough, co-founder and co-chair of the group. MUN Minds is located at UC-6017. They are open Monday-Friday 12-3.

Another issue seems to be the fact that students who wish to drop a course after the drop date must be referred to a counsellor. In her interview, Elizabeth Dane stated “these kids are coming into the system when they don’t really need to be”.

Cornish agrees. “What that means is we get a lot of people clogging our waiting room, using expensive specialists’ time to sign a letter”. He wonders why the drop date even exists at all, and why the counsellors are the ones to allow courses to be dropped after the date.

“We want to engage in these types of conversations so that everybody in the community says ‘well, you know, I have a role to support mental health’. The policy person, the registrar’s office person. Mental health isn’t just something you do over here”.