Long wait for counselling 'leads people to desperate places,' says Waterloo student

A University of Waterloo student says the long time it takes to get to a counsellor on campus can have serious consequences.

Wait times from intake to first counselling appointment can take months

Lee Mousa says she had to go to the hospital for mental health support because of the lengthy wait times on campus. (Brian St. Denis/CBC)

University of Waterloo students say they want more mental health support on campus, and faster. After a 22-year-old student died by suicide on campus this Monday, the asks for sufficient resources are increasing.

"If you don't state that basically you're suicidal, then you're not going to get help for a while," Lee Mousa told CBC News. She has been studying at the university for five years and uses counselling services regularly.

From intake to getting that first appointment with a counsellor can take weeks to months, and follow-up appointments with psychiatrists for medication can take two months, she said.

Compared to the number of students and the number of people who require support, she said "there are just so few counsellors."

"Just making appointments with them, they are completely booked every day of the week — their entire work hours, because that's just how busy they are," Mousa said.

Seeing a counsellor or psychologist off campus is also out of the budget for many students, she added.

There will be a report released next week about student mental health on campus and recommendations for making improvements.

Staffing and support

Currently, there are 22 full-time equivalent counselling services staff and 2 full-time equivalent psychiatrists serving 31,380 undergraduate students and 5,290 graduate students.

Last year, there have been a number of psychologists that left the university. Walter Mittelstaedt, director of campus wellness, said contract workers have been hired to support counselling services as the university works to fill all permanent positions.

Aside from counselling services, there are 24/7 hotlines offered by the university and mental health workshops on campus.

However, Mousa said they don't always work for her.

"I have a lot of anxiety around talking on the phone and things like that. When I'm feeling really down or upset, it's just not something I feel like I have the energy to do," she said.

Due to urgency, she had to visit Grand River Hospital because she simply couldn't wait until her next appointment.

She also knows someone who was hospitalized because they were unable to get help in time, "a consequence" of not having enough staff in counselling services.

"It leads people to desperate places that otherwise they might not have reached, because they would have gotten the support they needed," she said.

While the school tries its best to get rapid attention for students needing urgent help, those who are struggling but are not deemed as critical, might feel like they are being turned away.

"And to me that just seems a little ridiculous, because it kind of puts the idea into people's heads that if you are not at that extreme state, then your feelings and your issues, they don't matter," Mousa said.

Student mental health report

Mittelstaedt said on March 14, there will be a report coming out from President's Advisory Committee on Student Mental Health, which will talk about what is happening on campus and what the recommendations are, moving forward.

The report will not only address some of the mental health staffing issues, but also look at the culture that exists on campus and how it might affect students.

"There's some built-in stress, there's some built-in isolation, when people leave home. We just can't let that happen," said Mittelstaedt. "Naturally, I think there are things we can do to assist students when they're feeling that way."

Sarah Welton, who is organizing an event to ask administration for better mental health resources, said the school can be "rather alienating and toxic," and it needs to change.

"There are a lot of students that do end up feeling really isolated, and then we end up having these things happening."

About the Author

Flora Pan

Associate Producer & Reporter/Editor

Flora Pan is a multimedia journalist based in southern Ontario. She currently works out of Kitchener-Waterloo and Hamilton. You can reach her at flora.pan@cbc.ca or on Twitter @FloraTPan.