McGill Administration Continues to Fail Student Mental Health
Dear Deputy Provost Ollivier Dyens:
We are writing this letter to express our disappointment and concern with the direction of McGill Counselling and Mental Health Services under your tenure. Major structural reforms introduced this year still have not addressed repeated problems of insufficient and inaccessible support services on campus. We understand that this has been a transition year and that these changes have been made with good intentions, however, many of them have ultimately created more problems than they have solved. In so doing, the university has further endangered vulnerable students and diminished the care that they receive. In addition, the administration continues to redistribute restricted student fees by deducting more than $650 000 annually in overhead from Student Services. As a result, we do not trust the administration to deliver on its commitments to create “the healthiest possible learning environment” and improve student life and learning at McGill.
We are also troubled by the instability within Student Services leadership and its subsequent effect on staff. Student Services has seen 5 different directors within a two-year period. Mental Health Services has been operating without a clinical director since November 2016. Furthermore, it has come to our attention that clinicians who have tried on multiple occasions to raise urgent concerns regarding changes made to Counselling & Mental Health Services have been silenced or dismissed. This mismanagement and disregard for student mental health is unacceptable.
A detailed list of our concerns, along with proposed solutions, can be found in the appendix. We call upon the university administration to take the following actions in consultation with students and staff in order to rebuild trust within the McGill community.
1. Address urgent student and staff concerns in Counselling & Mental Health Services.
In the past year, a series of changes have been made to Counselling & Mental Health Services. While not all of these have been negative, we are appalled by their hasty implementation without due consideration for the impact on students and staff. Communication regarding major changes has been treated as an afterthought, with limited efforts to involve service users and student leaders in the decision-making process despite their repeated requests. Our concerns include issues in accessing medical notes required for academic accommodations, but more importantly the detrimental impact that the reduction in specialized services and the inefficient allocation of clinical resources has on students who need help the most. We should not need to impress upon the university that mental illness can be life threatening. There are many students, particularly international and out-of-province students, who have no choice but to depend on McGill Counselling & Mental Health Services for support.
2. Keep all dedicated funding in Student Services by eliminating the $650 000 in annual overhead that is deducted from this budget by the central administration. Student representatives to the Senate Committee on Student Services continuously demand increased transparency and accountability with respect to the budget, which we remind the university is funded primarily by student fees. Over the past 7 years, Student Services has lost over $2.5 million to “overhead charges” and cancelled university transfers. These critical services, which include Counselling & Mental Health Services and the Office for Students with Disabilities, are unable to keep up with dramatic increases in demand due to a lack of resources. McGill increasingly diverts funding away from wellness services rather than actively investing in programs that support student success and well-being. We have repeatedly expressed that this is not the vision we hold for our university yet have failed to see meaningful change.
3. Implement a comprehensive, campus-wide, evidence-based Mental Health Strategy that addresses the spectrum of mental health needs and acknowledges the responsibility of university stakeholders outside of Student Services to create a healthier community. Reconfiguring psychological services without also addressing structural and environmental conditions that exacerbate mental health issues is short-sighted. Such a plan has been promised since 2014. We need consistent, fair, and accessible procedures for requesting academic accommodation that do not force students to disclose private information to individuals who lack proper training in disability and mental health sensitivity. We must also invest in health promotion and mental health literacy to empower students to maintain their wellbeing and prevent crises from occurring. We are pleased to see leadership from Faculties such as Music, Engineering, Education, and the Department of Anatomy & Cell Biology in developing such programs. Yet, we see a lack of concrete action from the central administration, including the Office of Student Life & Learning. We are likewise concerned that many of these new initiatives were led by the former Director of Mental Health Services, who has recently left the university under questionable circumstances.
McGill students have repeatedly shown that they are deeply committed to improving campus mental health through awareness-building, policy advocacy, and the development of new volunteer-based peer support services. We have committed countless hours to building these initiatives from the ground-up. The administration is happy to promote student achievements in order to benefit the university’s reputation and yet continuously fails to meaningfully engage these same students in major decisions made within Student Services or Student Life & Learning as a whole.
McGill Students’ Mental Health Working Group
- Shannon Snow - 514-210-2287, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Chloe Rourke - 438-992-2247, email@example.com
- Erin Sobat - 514-398-6797, firstname.lastname@example.org
APPENDIX - RECOMMENDATIONS
Information on changes to services offered at Counselling & Mental Health Services can be found here. Below we have outlined a list of concerns with the current system and our proposed solutions.
Student & Staff Consultation
There has been a lack of genuine student, staff, and user consultation in the integration of Counselling and Mental Health Services and the introduction of the Stepped Care Model. In the interest of building trust going forward, we must see concrete steps to involve stakeholders before changes are made, not afterwards. We recommend the following:
- Include student representation on all major decision-making bodies and project teams within Student Services;
- Provide student leaders with a chance to contribute feedback on key job descriptions and participate in the hiring of unit directors;
- Introduce regular surveys on student satisfaction with campus psychological services and share this data with students;
- Create channels for communicating concerns that are not addressed by unit advisory boards to either the Executive Director or the Senate Committee on Student Services.
Client Care Clinician Model
When students access services at Counselling & Mental Health Services they are now randomly assigned to a Client Care Clinician or “CCC” (who may be either a counselling or clinical psychologist) without any triage process. Clinicians have different specialties, training, and philosophies towards treatment that are not properly leveraged in the current system. The CCC is expected to assess and provide support regardless of the severity or needs of the student to whom they are assigned. There is also no easy way for students to switch their CCC if they feel that they are not properly matched. We recommend the following:
- Hire dedicated, qualified triage staff for Counselling and Mental Health Services;
- Provide improved training and software for patient case management;
- Implement procedures for referrals between clinicians;
- Dedicate more clinical psychologist time to specialized therapy;
- Institute a clear channel for students to request a different Client Care Clinician.
Stepped Care Model
We support the philosophy and research behind Stepped Care, including its goal to expand the range of services available to students by leveraging treatments such as online therapy, psychoeducation, group therapy, and community-based resources. However, we are concerned that the Stepped Care Model has not been adequately adapted to the McGill context. We should better leverage internal resources, such as our team of publicly-funded psychiatrists, to ensure that students who cannot access care elsewhere receive the specialized treatment they require. We recommend the following:
- Re-assess the layout of our Stepped Care Model to ensure that it accurately lines up with existing services and fully leverages available specialized psychotherapy and psychiatry;
- Invest further in promoting and expanding lower-intensity and prevention initiatives;
- Clearly articulate the role of peer support within the Stepped Care Model in a way that recognizes the unique contributions, skills, and autonomy of student-run initiatives.
There has been very limited communication with students regarding system changes. Counselling and Mental Health Services have two separate websites with identical names, which is confusing and indicative of a superficial integration between these units. Resources such as workshops and WRAP groups (which students can access right away) should be promoted more extensively. We recommend the following:
- Involve staff with relevant health expertise in developing a full communications plan;
- Publicize all available care and treatment options online;
- Better coordinate outreach efforts among health and wellness units (particularly for the promotion of lower-intensity, psychoeducation, and self-help programs);
- Provide resources and training to campus partners (e.g. advisors, floor fellows) that facilitates effective referrals to lower-intensity programs.
Health & Wellness Strategy
A pan-university mental health strategy was first recommended in 2014. Since then, the majority of our U15 peer institutions have implemented their own strategies that recognize the need for a systemic approach to improving mental health and wellbeing on their campuses. In particular, the university must invest in measures outside of Student Services in order to develop a more supportive and inclusive community. We recommend the following:
- Implement evidence-based mental health literacy training for instructors;
- Expand the use of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles in teaching;
- Work towards destigmatizing and normalizing self-help and peer support resources;
- Invest in health education programming and better coordinate health promotion efforts among Student Services units;
- Provide targeted programming to promote access and support for marginalized students;
- Invest in Faculty-based staff responsible for facilitating academic accommodations.
Budget & Funding
We have made our concerns regarding increasing overhead charges clear. We do not support the redistribution of restricted funding earmarked for Student Services towards other units. We recommend the following:
- Introduce a moratorium on increases to overhead charges and implement a transparent deduction formula of no more than 1% annually;
- Restore inter-fund transfers to Student Services for maintenance of the Brown Building and orientation programming;
- Direct a greater proportion of government grant funding towards Student Services.