Kwantlen Counsellors

Encountering a new wave of student mental health difficulties

Wendy Belter, MA, CCC

Reprinted from "Campuses" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (3), pp. 14-15

I am a counsellor at the Surrey Campus of Kwantlen University College, a multi-campus school with about 17,000 students. The request for this article in the fall of 2007 was curiously timely—we were seeing a sudden spike in serious mental health issues among our students. This increase caught some of us off guard, though I can’t say it came as a complete surprise. Since recent shootings at Dawson College (2006), Virginia Tech (2007), Northern Illinois University and Louisiana Technical College (both 2008),1 campus mental health issues have, not surprisingly, been very much on the minds of post-secondary counsellors.

Here are a few examples of cases my co-workers and I have seen in the last few months:

A student, who was the victim of a recent home invasion, was experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including flashbacks, nightmares and difficulty concentrating.

  • A 17-year-old student, living far from home, revealed a serious eating disorder; the student’s physical condition worsened to the point where I had to go with the student to the emergency room of a local hospital.

  • A severely-depressed student (formerly a high-ranking public administrator who immigrated to Canada from another country, now working as a janitor) became suicidal and needed close monitoring for several weeks.

  • A student with multiple mental health concerns, including a personality disorder, faced a serious personal crisis that almost required her to withdraw from her courses.

  • One student had such frequent and severe panic attacks that she was unable to stay in the classroom.

  • A student experiencing a psychotic episode was brought to the counselling centre by an instructor, and a counsellor arranged for the student to be taken to hospital by ambulance.

The counsellors at Kwantlen know that substance abuse issues are also a concern for many of our students, but, perhaps because we are a “commuter” institution (meaning we have no student residences), they don’t often come to see us with those problems in mind. Instead, we tend to see more students coming forward with what I call “e-ddictions”; that is, with addictions to, for example, Facebook (renamed “Crackbook” by many students) or video games. They tend to seek help when they realize that their online activities are interfering with their studies, physical health, sleeping patterns and/or relationships.

Challenging our generalist counselling role

Often, our on-campus counselling centres are the first, last and only stop for students when it comes to help with mental health issues. Because of stigma, students tend to be more willing to see a campus counsellor than to contact an off-campus mental health professional. And, whether right or wrong, my perception (shared by my colleagues here) is that our local mental health services are overloaded and under-resourced. Because of this, they are often only able to provide service to those with the most severely pressing needs. All of this means that, oftentimes, we’re ‘it’ for mental health services for our students.

My colleagues and I are generalists, not mental health specialists. We deal with a wide range of student concerns and needs. These include helping students to:

  • make career choices and develop academic success skills

  • untangle red tape surrounding school policies

  • address serious issues in their personal lives

  • manage crises (which often involve mental health issues)

Added to the challenge of our changing role is the fact that, despite a large increase in student population at Kwantlen (from 6,900 full-time spaces in 1995/96 to roughly 9,500 last year, with about 17,000 full- and part-time students registered this year),2 there’s been virtually no increase in the number of counsellors.

With this increase in both the number and severity of students’ mental health concerns, however, it’s clear that we also need to start thinking of ourselves as mental health practitioners. This situation raises a whole series of questions and concerns:

  • Is it appropriate for us, as post-secondary counsellors, to become a student’s primary mental health care provider?

  • What exactly are the limits to the services we can provide?

  • Given that we can only work on an ongoing basis with registered students, is it ethical to begin a therapy relationship that we may not be able to continue if the person doesn’t register for classes in the next semester?

Responding to new demands

In response to these new demands, we have recently undertaken, as a group and individually, a range of activities, including but not limited to:

  • developing a blueprint to deal with suicidal students

  • joining the BC Partners Campus Project to share resources and ideas about dealing with students’ mental health and addictions issues

  • developing a trauma response team (three counsellors) that is available around the clock daily to assist students who are dealing with extreme situations, such as death, accidents, sexual assaults, “near misses,” etc.

  • attending the Institutional Emergency Preparedness Symposium (co-sponsored by the Association of Canadian Community Colleges and Vancouver Community College)

  • participating in a research project by a UBC doctoral student, which helped students to develop and use mindfulness strategies3 to deal with anxiety problems

  • attending a range of training courses specific to mental health issues

The even-larger truth

I realize that the tone of this article has been somewhat negative, focusing on the challenges my colleagues and I face. But here is what I believe is the even-larger truth: post-secondary education can be a life-changing and healing process for people with mental health challenges. My colleagues and I love our work because we often have the great privilege of watching that growth and transformation take place—making the challenges we and our students face very much worthwhile.

 
About the author

Wendy has an MA in Counselling Psychology from UBC. She has been a counsellor and, more recently, an instructor at Kwantlen University College since 1997. Wendy is passionately interested in mindfulness approaches to anxiety-related problems in living. She lives in Surrey with her husband and two teenaged children.

Footnotes:
  1. On September 13, 2006, at Dawson College in Montreal, a student killed one other student, injured 19 others and then killed himself. On April 16, 2007, at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia, a student killed 32 students and wounded more, then killed himself. On February 8, 2008, at Louisiana Technical College in Baton Rouge, a female nursing student killed two other female students and then herself. On February 14, 2008, at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois, a student killed five other students and injured more, then killed himself.

  2. Kwantlen University College. Institutional Analysis and Planning (website). www.kwantlen.ca/iap

  3. Mindfulness has to do with presence of mind. Here is one definition, from Jon Kabat-Zinn: “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” (Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion, p.4.)

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