Student suicide highlights uncertain future of university's mental health services

In the wake of a student suicide on campus that has mobilized conversations about mental health, the future of some psychological counselling services at the University of Alberta is uncertain.

Students and staff worry $1 million annual government grant for mental health is set to expire soon

Dozens of people attend a memorial service for Evan Tran, 21, a university student who took his life on campus over Thanksgiving weekend. His family publicized his death to raise awareness about mental health. (CBC)

In the wake of a student suicide on campus that has triggered debate about mental health, the future of some psychological counselling services at the University of Alberta is uncertain.

A $1-million-per-year provincial government grant that allowed the school to hire more psychologists over the past three years has yet to be renewed for next year.

Students and administrative staff say they're puzzled by the stall in funding approval.

"It's in dire need of replacement," said student union president Navneet Khinda.

Khinda said she was recently contacted by at least two students who wanted to make appointments with professional counsellors on campus right away, but couldn't.

One of those students told her he believed his situation was an emergency. But he was told he he couldn't make an appointment because there was no one available.

"There's just not enough [counsellors]," Khinda said. "And honestly, I think it's just pennies for the government of Alberta.

"It's not that much money," she added, but it has "a big impact for us."

The university, which has about 40,000 students, employs psychologists and psychiatrists who students can see in confidence, and for free. Monday to Friday, there are seven registered psychologists and two psychiatrists open for appointments.

There are also 4.6 full-time equivalent staff jobs for registered psychologists stationed in individual faculties.

University administration could not confirm which of these staff positions was funded by the grant from the province.

But the school's deputy provost Wendy Rodgers said there is a waiting list of one month and a half for students who want to see a psychiatrist, which suggests a great need.

"It's the kind of an area that we would always say more is better," Rodgers said.

New suicide prevention programs

The university has added new suicide prevention services in a more strategic way over the past year. The issue came to a boil in November 2014, when there were two "non-criminal" deaths on campus within a month of each other.

A recent third death has brought the issue further into focus. Evan Tran, 21, died on campus over Thanksgiving weekend. His family publicized it as a suicide to try to raise awareness about mental health.

"One [suicide] is too many," Rodgers said.  "We are going to have tragedies no matter how much prevention we have, but we can still do our best to ensure that awareness is high and resources are available to those who seek them out."

The student union also spends about $70,000 per year to fund peer support services, including a help phone line and peer-to-peer counselling services. While having that first-tier, front-line service is important, Khinda said the professional help is also necessary, if not more so.

"We're going to keep lobbying, and keep informing the MLAs," said Khinda, "because I'm not sure if a lot of them even know of this funding." 

She and Rodgers say government representatives have told them they're doing a review of how the grant money was being spent.

The grant was part of a provincewide pilot project, where the University of Calgary, the University of Lethbridge and the University of Alberta received funding specifically for mental health services. The grants are set to expire this school year. 

The Alberta Health ministry confirmed the government has not decided on the future of the program. 

"Any decision on funding will be made in light of the recommendations from the Mental Health Review and based on an evaluation of the current grant," wrote spokesperson Carolyn Ziegler in an email.

The mental health review is a province-wide evaluation of government addiction and mental health services. The review group has been asked to offer recommendations to the health minister by the end of this year. 

"The Alberta government is committed to improving mental health services in our province, and that includes ensuring post-secondary students have the supports and services they need."




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