British Columbia

Improving access to mental health counselling a priority at UBC

The University of British Columbia is making changes to shift the conversation about mental health on campus.

The university is taking a new approach to its on-campus counselling services.

According to an Academic Experience Survey released by UBC's student union in July, 90 per cent of undergraduate students are aware of the UBC counseling services, but only 17 per cent said they have been helped by them. (Canadian Press)

When over 45,000 students start another semester of classes at the University of British Columbia next month, they'll be given information to help them if they have any academic or financial troubles. 

But in recent years, UBC has increased its effort to make sure students know where to go if they have mental health troubles as well.

"We really support students to first of all access the services they need as well as to take the time they need if they're not feeling well enough to continue with their studies," said Cheryl Washburn, director of counseling services for UBC.

Washburn says the university has been making some improvements to the services available.

For one, she says they have introduced a centralized first point of contact to identify students' concerns and the level of support needed.

"It connects a student to the least intrusive, least intensive, yet most effective support at any given time," she said. 

And in January 2018, there will be a new wellness centre in the UBC Life Centre.

This means students will not have to go to the area for counselling services to get help, which Washburn says may reduce some of the hesitation students have.

UBC student taking initiative

It's not just the university trying to open up the conversation around mental health.

Second-year UBC student Dan Nixon became a student leader for It's an online network working to transform the conversation around mental health, founded by an Ontario family after their son committed suicide while in his first year at Queen's University.

"I got involved initially because someone asked for my support and I didn't know how to give it. And that really kind of woke me up," said Nixon.

Nixon says when he was in his first year at the university, he didn't feel comfortable telling his professor he needed a mental health day.

"I was so scared. I didn't feel comfortable going up to a professor and saying that to them."

UBC student, Dan Nixon, is an advocate for mental health with

Survey suggests need for improvement

According to an Academic Experience Survey released by UBC's student union in July, 90 per cent of undergraduate students are aware of the UBC counselling services, but only 17 per cent said they have been helped by them. 

The survey was conducted by Insights West and had a sample size of 2,484 UBC students. It also found that 43 per cent of undergraduates regularly worry about their expenses, including tuition, and 36 per cent experience hardship related to these finances.

Nixon says he's noticed many students prioritizing academics to the point that mental health falls by the wayside.

"I think it was just astonishing the amount of people in exam season that would just totally forget about taking care of their mental health or just put it on the bottom. They wouldn't even think about it. Just study, study, study." 

Washburn believes the changes made by UBC will give students more confidence in reaching out.

"Since launching the new approach in January of this year we have been able to see students for that initial consultation and assessment in a much more timely manner."

Nixon says that on such a large campus, changing the conversation around mental health requires everyone to get on board.

"Logistically it's really hard — we have so many students at UBC — to reach every student and let them know that, hey, we care about your mental health,'" he said.

"It has to come from a large level at the university but it's also it's down on an individual level on the professors, and the advisors, and the resident advisors to say mental health is a priority and so we're going to be there for people when they need it."