This Should Ease the Pain a Little

A Closer Look at Counselling and Development

Graphic Graeme Shorten Adams

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For Alex Manley, the decision to speak to someone in Concordia’s office of Counselling and Development came after the government ran a campaign raising awareness about mental illness. The campaign featured PSAs with messages about depression, urging people to reflect on their own feelings. Manley saw the ads and thought, “I might have depression.”

“I failed all my classes that semester, things were looking pretty bleak. I wasn’t going out, I was having suicidal thoughts,” he said.

He sought help from Concordia Health Services and was told that they didn’t think he was depressed, but recommended he speak to someone in Counselling and Development. In early 2008 he started speaking to a counsellor, who he saw on and off for roughly three years.

The therapy sessions Manley went to are one form of treatment Counselling and Development offers. Last year, approximately 10,000 students contacted the office for support according to director Howard Magonet, meaning that counsellors and psychiatrists typically saw three to five students a day.

At Concordia, mental health services are divided into two categories: services provided by Counselling and Development, and those handled by Health Services. Services are offered on both campuses, and for Counselling and Development there are roughly 12 counsellors and psychologists on staff to attend to the needs of students.

The problems Magonet says counsellors deal with most frequently are in line with what a 2013 study done by the Canadian Association of University Student Services found—most students seek help for issues related to anxiety, depression and relationships.

According to the 2013 Canadian Community Health Survey, individuals aged 15-24—a category that includes the majority of university students—are more likely to develop mental difficulties than any other age group. It’s no secret, and the prevalence of mental illness among university-age students means that the resources to support them have to be there—and they have to be strong.

It’s precisely the strength of the services—as well as the length of each session—that Jason* questions.

“Forty-five minutes once every two weeks isn’t enough time to get to know the spectrum of what’s really going on,” he said, adding that his experience with Counselling and Development was good, but up to a point.

Their services seem to be designed as a supplement to counselling that students can receive outside of school, he says, but that brings in a very obvious problem: cost.

“My therapist [outside of school] is like $175 an hour and a lot of families can’t afford that,” Jason said.

The often-costly price tag of therapy at a private clinic means that for many, in-school counselling is the only option. For Magonet, the triage approach adopted by Counselling and Development helps to mitigate this.

“Everyone who comes to see us for personal counselling has a triage appointment with one of our professional psychologists. During this time we take a look at their full schedule of functioning, we look at their home life, their student life, relationships, everything that we need to do,” he said. “Through that we develop the parameters of our treatment program.”

Manley’s experience interacting with his counsellor shows the positive interactions students can have. He’d visit Counselling and Development intermittently, a few times every month or so, and then come back six months later “in the middle of a crisis, and [the counsellor] was always very accommodating as far as seeing me again.”

The value of these services is plainly obvious, and neither Manley nor Jason question that for a minute.

“Before I got to Counselling and Development I had absolutely one of the worst, most stressful couple months of my life […] I was completely lost, kind of drowning in an incapacity to deal with my life,” Manley said.

“The return on my investment was massive. I spent not a lot of time over a span of three years, it didn’t cost me anything, it was huge for me as a person, and to that end I can only imagine how potentially huge it can be for people who are in even more need of it,” he continued.

Jason’s situation brings to light one of the significant aspects of therapy services provided at Concordia. But what do you do when someone’s condition is beyond your control as a therapist to work on?

“If we happen to see somebody who requires additional resources to individual counselling, then, for example, in-house we could refer them to Health Services to see a psychiatrist,” Magonet explained. “In our facilities we can only offer out-patient services. If we start to see that they require something that is more elaborate than that then we make referrals to different hospitals, CLSCs, depending on the issue that’s presenting.”

Jason acknowledged that his reasons for seeking help were perhaps more severe than other students’ reasons, but ultimately found that Counselling and Development “just [doesn’t] have the resources and the time to get into the major issues with students that need more than just [advice on] how to balance life.”

The counsellor he interacted with was helpful, but he stressed the importance of a well-developed relationship between a therapist and their patient.

“She was as helpful as she could have been, but because she didn’t know me—and my medical illnesses are quite severe—what she and I worked on was balancing how to get up every morning, how to set aside two hours every evening to do homework,” he said. “It wasn’t really talking about the issues that caused the problems of me not to succeed in school.”

For students like Jason, the issue isn’t whether or not the service being provided is good or bad—the question is whether it can really make an impact.

“If they could give an hour and a half or two hours I bet they would, because they are there to help, and they care about their patients,” Jason said. “It’s just difficult when [they have] a thousand or 500 other students [they] probably see.”

Magonet says that he feels Counselling and Development has the appropriate resources to deal with a diversity of student needs because they know their limits.

“We know that if we can see them here we will, and we also know that if we have to see them in conjunction with some type of referral we will. The main thing is to be a holding place for them until they can find some resource outside of here that will maintain that relationship as well,” he said. “We won’t leave anybody in the lurch.”

In a university that has enrollment rates in the tens of thousands, finding a model for support that is as inclusive as possible to the diversity of student needs can be a formidable task. Still, there is little to suggest the university is not trying to create a supportive, effective framework for students.

In a school of about 45,000 students, there are many who need help. For some, Concordia is the only place they can get it.

*name has been changed.