New Brunswick

More UNB students than ever disclose suicidal thoughts, psychologist says

More students at the University of New Brunswick are relying on mental health services, causing more counsellors to burn out.

UNB counsellors suffer burnout as number of clients rises 40 per cent in 10 years, report says

A recent proposal says 740 students were seeking mental health services in 2008-2009. That number jumped to more than 1,000 students in the 2017-2018 school year. (Shutterstock)

More students at the University of New Brunswick are relying on mental health services than ever before, and more than half of them have had suicidal thoughts, says the UNB director of counselling.

The number of students seeking counselling has jumped 40 per cent from 10 years ago, causing burnout among staff, said psychologist Rice Fuller. 

Many students are seeking help for problems that are complex and severe. 

"They're saying they're having thoughts of ending their lives," Fuller said in an interview Wednesday with Information Morning Fredericton.

"When it gets to be more severe, they may have a plan about what they're doing. They may have also a history of previous attempts at taking their own lives."

In a report to the university, Fuller said 740 students sought mental health services in 2008-2009. That number jumped to more than 1,000 students in the 2017-2018 school year.

The proposal says more than 50 per cent of UNB students who come to their first counselling appointment are having suicidal thoughts.

Students rated as medium-to-high risk for suicide, have gone from three per cent of clients to more than 30 per cent in the past 10 years.

Rice Fuller, a psychologist and director of counselling services at the University of New Brunswick, says students come in with more complex problems today than they did 10 years ago. (CBC)

The increase and severity of problems has taken a toll on counsellors, he said.

"You really need to drop everything else at that point if somebody's in the medium-to-high risk for suicide," Fuller said. "You need to give your entire focus to that person right there."

When students are medium-to-high risk, he said, counsellors are likely to spend more time with that student, develop a plan to ensure they're going to be safe, get the help they need, and possibly alert other people.  

"It's a pretty complex thing and to have somebody coming into your office who is at that high risk for suicide, it is draining and takes a toll on you," he said.  

Expects numbers to get worse

George MacLean, vice-president of academics at UNB, said Fuller's numbers are troubling and he expects them to increase.

Mental health in New Brunswick especially is affected by socioeconomic conditions, a small population with reduced government services, and a rural-urban divide.

"The fact is that's what society looks like and we deal with the demographic of that society," he said.

The demands on counselling services at universities across the country have "increased dramatically," MacLean said, and UNB is constantly looking at ways to provide better care for students seeking mental health services.

UNB has spoken with health-care professionals and looked at what other universities are doing.

"We really need to be mindful because … these issues aren't going away," he said. 

Counsellors under pressure 

Fuller said counsellors are frequently being asked to provide more training and teaching to faculty, staff and students on how to identify and respond to students in distress, as well as teaching mental health first aid.  

They're also receiving calls daily to provide consultation with difficult students. 

Things have gotten increasingly more stressful … it really feels like we're on the hot seat 24/7.- Rice Fuller, psychologist

In the past 18 months, two psychologists have left their jobs at UNB. Fuller himself is taking a leave of absence.

His report to the university asked for an increase in pay for counsellors.

Fuller said his team is trying to meet demand, and the university isn't acknowledging those efforts. He notified MacLean of the issues in 2017 and made the compensation proposal in February but hasn't heard back.  

​MacLean said he has met with the assistant vice-president in charge of student services and other university officials to discuss the report and how to respond to it.

"The report contained a lot of important information, and we are acting on it because we have a small working group that is responding to, not just that, but other issues that have come to our attention that need immediate and long-term response with regard to counselling," he said.

There are 11 people on staff, including interns, who provide mental health services to students.

They have an average of at least four cases a day — an increase of about 20 per cent since 2017.

"It has been a difficult 10 years," Fuller said. "Things have gotten increasingly more stressful … it really feels like we're on the hot seat 24/7."

What's changed?

With better access to mental health services and a decrease in stigma surrounding mental illness, more students are seeking help, Fuller said.

But students today are also faced with more challenges.

With social media, they are more connected than ever, and what they see online can have a negative impact on their mental health, resulting in personal comparisons and shallow interactions with others, he said.  

Students now also have fewer life experiences and are less independent coming into university. There are students in their first year who have never received a driver's licence, held any kind of job, or lived away from home.

How to fix it

Fuller said the university needs to increase its budget for mental health services for students.

At the same time, the province needs to consider additional funding at all New Brunswick colleges and universities, he said.

"Certainly, in the psychologist's case they're not making enough money to get them to stay," he said.

Mental health services are allotted $500,000 a year. Although money is tight, MacLean said the university has not reduced its counselling budget.

"We've been doing everything we can to protect counselling because we know how essential it is for the frontline health-care service that's needed by our students," he said. 

Fuller said mental illness is also a societal illness that needs to be addressed "upstream," whether that be in high school or at home.

Next door to UNB, at St. Thomas University, students donated $300,000 this week to improve on-campus mental health services.

With files from Information Morning Fredericton

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