LU students 'frustrated' by referendum on funding mental health care

Laurentian University students recently rejected the opportunity to pay more for increased counselling services on campus. Now some are questioning why something as fundamental as mental health care became a referendum topic.

Most students voted against $70 extra fee to hire 4 new counsellors at university

Laurentian University students Whitney Simpson (left) and Julia Kinna (right) voted in favour of paying a higher fee for expanded campus mental health services. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Laurentian University students recently rejected the opportunity to pay more for increased counselling services on campus.

Now some are questioning why something as fundamental as mental health care became a referendum topic.

"It's actually a shame," said Julia Kinna, a second-year social work student.

"But I don't think it's a matter of students not wanting to pay. I think students are just frustrated with the fact that it shouldn't even be a question if mental health services are implemented in schools."

Kinna voted in favour of increasing the student mental health services fee from $20 to $90.

The money would have gone towards hiring four new counsellors, including: a mental health prevention and education coordinator, substance abuse and addictions coordinator, crisis prevention and management co-ordinator, and a sexual violence prevention and support coordinator.

Student fees 'could be redirected towards saving someone's life'

But the referendum did not get enough student support. 

"In my tuition, I pay [$150] for a bus pass that ... I don't use," Kinna said. 

"I'm frustrated that money is going towards something that I'm not using, where it could be redirected towards saving someone's life."

Whitney Simpson said she has been going through a stressful time during her second year studying sports administration.

She said she had to wait three weeks for a counselling appointment on campus. 

"That's three weeks of just waiting and contemplating with yourself," Simpson said.

"University is obviously very stressful. It's a lot on a person. You're away from your family. You don't really have a lot of resources.

"I think it's just important that people have someone to talk to."

University wanted 'co-investors'

Laurentian has two counsellors and a few registered social worker graduates who are assigned to address mental health needs, according to student life director Erik Labrosse. 
Erik Labrosse, Laurentian University student life director, said the mental health care vote was part of a protocol in its partnership with student associations and a commitment to be transparent with fees. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Wait times are generally between five to seven days, but Labrosse said students can see a counsellor within the hour depending on the need. 

Labrosse said the university had to hold a referendum to expand mental health services because of its partnership with student organizations.

"We do follow a protocol and we have to respect that protocol, and be responsible and transparent with the fees." Labrosse said.

"We wanted to be co-investors in making this a more expanded service and a more comprehensive service."

'We wish we could do more'

Like Laurentian, Cambrian College counsellors will see students who have the with highest needs first. There is between a three- to seven-day waiting period for other needs, according to the college's associate vice president of student and employee development Alison De Luisa.

Cambrian has one counsellor and three other student support advisors.

Meanwhile, College Boreal has two counsellors and may apply for additional provincial grants to hire more. 
President of Laurentian University's Students' General Association, Kraymr Grenke, told CBC News he plans to ask students for their support in hiring four more front line counsellors again. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

"It's overwhelming right now how many students need help," said College Boreal student services director Renée Hallée.

"It's the end of the semester. They don't know if they're going to pass ... We wish we could do more."

SGA: Mental health not on the 'back burner'

Laurentian University may consider training more people on campus to be first responders and build stronger relationships with community mental health providers, according to Labrosse. 

Although the result of the student referendum was not what Labrosse wanted, he said the university will continue to look for ways to to bring in more counsellors.

The Students' General Association is also vowing to keep pushing for improvements to campus mental health support.

"This isn't something that is going to take the back burner," association president Kraymr Grenke said.

"Students should expect this question to be asked again next year."


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: