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Langara College students face record high mental health crisis

Most crisis appointments made in Langara's history, according to counselling services department

Photo: Ana Rose Walkey
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Reported by Myra Dionne, Ana Rose Walkey and Danica Walker

Langara College has seen a record number of crisis appointments this fall, stretching mental health services to their limit.

An investigation by The Voice found that faculty at Langara and other post-secondary schools in B.C. have noticed an upward trend in demand for assistance from those struggling with mental health.

Michele Bowers, Langara’s department chair for counselling, said they have hired more practitioners but the department is still struggling to keep up with demand.

“The answer is not just to add more counsellors to the counselling department roster,” Bowers said during an interview with The Voice conducted by email. “There is no one easy fix but more of a systemic approach to creating a school environment, curriculum, culture and resources.”

A nation-wide issue

Across Canada, young adults of post-secondary age are the most at risk of experiencing mental health issues. In a report by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, 1.3 million people between the ages of 20 and 29 suffered from a form of mental health illness in 2011. In the same year, 800,000 people between the ages of 13 and 19 suffered from mental health issues.

Some believe that the increase in mental health cases from high-school age to post-secondary age could be attributed to the stressors in the transition between childhood to adulthood. Many students reach out to services because of the stress related to school.

Alex Berland, an expert in mental health policy at UBC, said there are special reasons to think about post-secondary students differently because of certain stressors particular to the demographic.

“Some of that is going to be the workload stress, some of it’s going to be students moving away from home perhaps for the first time so they can attend school, some of it may be unique aspects of school life itself unrelated to exams,” Berland said.

Rachel Anthony, a former Langara student, went to counselling services about a year ago for similar reasons.

“I was going through an emotional roller coaster and I went in to talk to one of the counsellors just about how to ground myself and focus back on doing my exams or studying for them,” she said

Searching elsewhere

Anthony has sought services from a private counsellor because she thought student services didn’t offer her the adequate help she required.

“I felt like they just didn’t want to talk about anything emotional and didn’t want to know you personally. They were just there to give you facts,” she said.

Bowers, who also worked at UBC, said the issues are not limited to Langara.

“The mental health trends we are seeing is a phenomenon across all post-secondary schools,” she said.

Elida Izani, a graduate of the film production program at UBC, felt she was not prioritized when she sought help.

“I wasn’t critical; my grades were fine, I was handing in my work on time, I had very high-functioning depression and anxiety, essentially…But I didn’t feel like my illness was all that legitimate, and to this day, I still have those doubts,” she said.

“I’m not saying that UBC counselling was the cause of those doubts, but they certainly exacerbated them.”

Izani said she thinks because of counselling services’ lack of resources, they have to prioritize those struggling with school.

Shaky mentality, shaky future
Ji-Youn Kim is the founder of The Tipping Point, an advocacy group that aims to encourage post-secondary institutions to better support student mental health. She said she used to go to UBC, but dropped out due to her mental health.

“If universities have the money, they’re not allocating it for the students. They’re allocating it for things like research…but also, who funds that research? The undergrad students,” Kim said.

“We need to start shifting from research based universities to student learning based because universities cannot function, they cannot continue to do the research without the students and the students aren’t going to come in unless they’re happy and they’re doing well.”

Kim said she is seeing effort being made, but not necessarily where it’s needed. She said she sees it being put into short-term fixes, but feels the need for post-secondary institutions to start looking deeper and focus on prevention.

“Listening to the needs before crisis, before emergency is so key. And so, I would ask universities and staff and faculty to get curious,” she said.

Kim said she thinks there is a better chance for smaller institutions to implement changes.

Cries are being heard

Langara Students Services are aware of the shortcomings in mental health care and are implementing change, Bowers said.

“The college is currently engaged in many initiatives supporting the wellness of the college community,” she said, adding they are hoping to create a unique system that better serves the individual needs of students.

Berland said issues that counselling services may be facing are not necessarily a result of a higher demand.

“There’s precious little in the way of data. And that’s a problem. There’s not enough investment in actually keeping track of what’s going on,” he said.

Data for Langara College was unavailable. The last updated survey about mental health in Canada was done by the American College Health Association last year. Statistics Canada latest mental health statistics were posted in 2014.

Students that have spoken about their experiences agree that seeking treatment is personal. Annalise Fischer, a UBC student, said it’s important to find a counsellor you like. She said she has been to appointments where she felt her situation was trivialized.

“That’s definitely part of the issue with getting treatment from either a counsellor or psychiatrist. Some people need the sort of tough-love and that’s what gets them going,” Fischer said. “Some people respond really well to that and then they kind of realize that they are capable. But other people, that just proves to them the opposite.”

Organizations are working on developing more comprehensive mental health strategies in post-secondary schools.

Bowers said Langara College is currently engaged in many initiatives to support the wellness of the college community. She said counsellors are visiting classrooms, they’ve hired more staff and are implementing new models to support students’ different needs.

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