Concordia’s Mental Health Services: Little Diversity and Long Wait Times

Some Students Struggle to Get the Most Out of Services Available

Out of the 12 psychologists Concordia has, there are no people of colour. Graphic Aiden Locke

Students dealing with mental illness confront long wait times when seeking support.

Demands for mental health services have increased, as a growing number of students are reporting they are being impacted by mental illness. Many also may have difficulty easily accessing Concordia’s Counselling and Psychological Services.

For non-white students at Concordia, having a counsellor who has not faced racial discrimination can complicate things, especially if a student needs to process trauma resulting from their own discrimination. But on Concordia’s team of 12 psychologists, there are no people of colour to connect with students seeking a counsellor with similar experiences and understanding.

“[My counsellor was] an older white female. In a sense, I felt like she did not understand the intersectionality of some of the things I was facing, directly related to being a woman of colour,” said a Concordia student who chose to speak anonymously. “I didn’t feel on the receiving end of any empathy either.” She said she had built up courage in her first year to make an appointment with Concordia’s services, but left her appointment feeling worse.

It wasn’t only the lack of representation but also because of the experience she had with her counsellor. She vividly remembered admitting certain issues for the first time and not being taken seriously by her counsellor. “I was asked whether school was being affected and that seemed to be the focal point of the meeting.”

According to her, the counsellor seemed to be focused on how her mental illness was impacting her education, rather than addressing the roots of her issues.

“I was desperate, and chose to go back one last time the following year and it left me even more scarred,” she said. She said she cried for 45 minutes during the session and received a lack of support and advice. By her third year, she filed for a change. The process took over a month only for her to be denied because the person in charge of accepting or approving counsellor changes was on sabbatical.

“All this even after I stressed how urgent the request was and the treatment I had received,” she said. “I haven’t been back since.”

In May 2017, the director of Health, Wellness and Support Services at Concordia Gaya Arasaratnam told the Montreal Gazette that there had been a rise in students needing their services, as well as more complex mental health problems. Parneet Chohan, a counselling therapist at Open Centre—which provides a space for mental and physical aid for members of the LGBTQ+ communities—said when someone has been traumatized by a certain demographic (whether it’s by white people, straight or cis, for example) it’s hard to be vulnerable with these groups after personal and an ancestral history of violence.

Chohan has also completed an internship with Concordia’s Counselling and Psychological Services. She added that it is possible counsellors with patients from certain demographics which they are not a part of can properly understand or empathize with them, and provide proper counsel. That being said, it can be scary for a patient to name issues of discrimination committed by the same demographic one is opening up to.

“It’s important to have people who not only represent or reflect back to us our various sides of our identity, but also people we feel not triggered and threatened by when we do go deep about the things that we’ve lived,” Chohan said.

Chohan said there’s a deep importance in seeing ourselves in the person who is helping or hearing us. She said there is an unspoken acknowledgement of experiences. Chohan added that patients have to educate their counsellor, and do “a lot of explaining around surviving racism, white supremacy [or] heterosexism […] it should be minimal, a lot of work should be done by the therapist.”

Vicky Boldo, in-house cultural support for the Aboriginal Student Resource Centre at Concordia and Co-Chair of the Montreal Urban Aboriginal Community Strategy Network shared similar thoughts. While she would like to give the Concordia community credit for the consultations held last year regarding institutionalized racism through the Concordia Student Union, more work needs to be done. Boldo stressed a need for more diversity in Concordia’s team, saying their ability to offer well-rounded services to students depends on it, as Concordia is so diverse.

“Even if it wasn’t somebody directly who is Indigenous, but who is a minority, there is just something in the approach of that individual where they have lived experience,” she said. “It’s not all just book knowledge.” There is a psychologist that checks in to the ASRC weekly, and Boldo said she can help recommend students to Concordia’s Counselling and Psychological Services if they are in a crisis. However, Boldo also refers students from the ASRC to services outside of the university that are more suited for their needs, since some can claim funding for psychological services from the government if they are intergenerational residential school survivors.

These services offer either Indigenous counsellors, or therapists who are allies of the communities, who she says are sensitive to student’s trauma and experiences of discrimination. When an Indigenous person has worked with an Indigenous therapist they don’t have to take time to explain Canadian history or what it means to be an Indigenous person, expressed Boldo. She said it allows for greater trust and understanding to form between the two.

When Boldo saw a non-Indigenous psychologist and explained the trauma and violence that she had experienced within her youth she said they’d often express shock. As a result, it would cause her to shut down emotionally and she would stop the sessions because she didn’t want to continue and further upset them with her past. In working with an Indigenous therapist, Boldo didn’t create the same shock, because her therapist was also an Indigenous woman.

“Sometimes it can take many sessions to create a relationship with somebody, so it saves a lot of time,” explained Boldo.

Director of the Counseling and Psychological Services Howard Magonet said that in the past there have been people of colour working within the counselling and psychological services, though currently there are none. “It’s only really because I can only hire people who apply,” he said. “We hire anybody, from any culture, from any background, everyone is welcome to work here.”

“Right now, this is the group that we have,” stated Magonet. “When you look at the bigger umbrella, then we have every person of almost every colour and every background in Campus Wellness and Support Services—so I’m not quite sure why students feel that way,” he said.

“It’s important to have people who not only represent or reflect back to us our various sides of our identity, but also people we feel not triggered and threatened by when we do go deep about the things that we’ve lived.” Parneet Chohan

Design Carl Bindman

Those services include the Access Centre for Students with Disabilities, Psychological and Counselling Services, and the school’s in-house clinic. He explained that counsellors have had exceptional training to be well equipped to handle issues of discrimination and racism.
Magonet added that during their training, people have come in to talk about different cultural backgrounds, taught them how to be sensitive in certain situations, and how to work in a school that is rich in diversity.

Chohan said a racialized person is not only going through the struggles of university with a full course load, but they are also facing microaggressions every day, while being discriminated against. At some point, Chohan said she had to choose between her mental health and being a “good student or achiever.”

Chohan recognized that mental health issues can impact students that have more stressers outside of work, such as students with a job or multiple jobs, students raising kids or those with disabilities. She explained it’s often people “who are quite privileged and who are having their fees paid for, who don’t have any mental health struggles, who don’t have any trauma” who are more likely to become a therapist.

“It’s no wonder [those] who often graduate from these programs are cis, heterosexual white men and women, able-bodied, wealthy—it’s kind of like a vicious cycle that feeds into itself.”

She said there needs to be a fundamental shift within the system of mental health services. “Abusive Relationships” with Our Degrees Chohan said university can often worsen the state of mental health for students.

“We can’t speak about the mental health programs without speaking about one of the fundamental causes of so much stress and anxiety that happens with students in institutional frameworks or in institutional settings,” said Chohan. “The whole educational academic institutional system is based on being overworked and being overloaded with course material [that] is being completely run dry on the
requirements of the various programs that students are put through.”

She said it makes sense that there are long waiting lists and a large need for mental health services, because a lot of students are in an abusive relationship with their degree. She said that many students are
putting unrealistic expectations on themselves no matter how hard they work.

In her time studying at University of Alberta, Chohan recalls how drained she felt. At McGill University, the number of students in need of campus mental health services rose 57 per cent over three years, The Gazette reported in 2017.

In a survey conducted by Maclean’s magazine in April 2017, Concordia did not make the list of top 15 universities ranked highest for their mental health services. However, 58.1 per cent of surveyed students at Concordia reported feeling overwhelmed on a weekly or daily basis.

When Boldo worked as a teaching assistant at Université de Montréal, professors would begin the class by having a debriefing session with students, which involved checking in with students to see how they are doing. Boldo said professors could help the state of their students’ mental health by adopting this practice in their classrooms.

Counselling and Psychological Services have seen improvements over the past year with an influx of new services to aid students. This includes the newest change, the emergence of the Zen Den, a space on campus where students can find calm, and can attend workshops to address anxiety. It also provides a space for venting sessions. Montreal universities are not the only institutions to see a rise in the need for mental health services.

In Ontario, rates of mental illness have risen in students attending colleges and universities, according to a 2016 survey conducted by the American College Health Association with responses by 25,000 students.The survey showed 65 per cent of students have experienced
overwhelming anxiety in the past year.

In 2013, ACHA’s study reported 57 per cent. The same survey said that in 2016, 46 per cent of students disclosed having felt so depressed in the past year it was difficult to function, an increase from the 40 per cent reported in 2013.

“We can provide support, but it’s the system itself that is fundamentally flawed, it’s not based in real capacity,” Chohan said. “It makes sense there’s long waiting lists and huge demands for mental health services.”

In 2017, Concordia Health Services received $2.7 million in funding. This was distributed to Health Services, Counselling and Psychological Services, as well as the Access Centre for Students with Disabilities, explained Concordia Spokesperson Mary-Jo Barr. Magonet said that “wait time is first come first serve for triage on a daily basis.”

For some students, it is difficult to get an appointment during the fall and winter semesters. Sometimes, during the summer semester there can be long wait times, explained Magonet.

Sophia Quach, a Concordia student, said she had a good experience with her psychologist, but she faced long waiting times. She wasn’t able to obtain a follow up with her counsellor until three weeks later. After having recently had an anxiety attack, Quach said she needed an appointment much sooner.

“The time that they are talking about is for the follow up, it’s really anywhere from three to four weeks when our services are running smoothly,” said Magonet. “When we get bogged down, like when we have been in the fall and winter semesters—and I was still a counsellor short—the list was between five and seven weeks.”

There are 12 therapists for over 46, 000 students, said Magonet. “An ideal ratio, though I don’t know exactly where that would exist, would [be] closer to 1 to 1500 or 1 to 2000,” Magonet said. “But these are the resources that we have here today.”

Off-campus Psychological Services

For those seeking off-campus services, perhaps to find a greater diversity among counsellors, there are services available.

Chohan said there are sliding scales which she offers to her clients at the Open Centre; a system where someone can pay the maximum price if they can afford it or if they cannot, they can pay the minimum price. Chohan has a sliding scale of $50-100 for her services, which allows people who are in a lower income bracket to pay the minimum of $50. Some places like the Argyle Institute, located at 4150 Ste-Catherine St. W., do background checks to confirm you are under a certain income bracket in order to pay a reduced price. Chohan said the Argyle Institute provides the sliding scale, however, there are not as many POC health care providers.

Monster Academy, a social justice oriented group, provides accessible and anti-oppressive workshops on mental health to youth. They do not have therapy services, but they share a resource list with BIPOC counsellors which is often updated. Chohan recommended Project 10 as an excellent resource, with many BIPOC therapists. It is located at 1575 Amherst St., near Beaudry metro.

DESTA, a Black youth network, provides free individual counselling for youth in need of emotional or psychological support. The Native Friendship Centre, located close to Saint-Laurent metro, also offers peer counselling and mentorship to Indigenous people. Chohan also recommended to go to someone you may be interested in seeking mental health services from and have a conversation about sliding scale pricing.

Design Carl Bindman