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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

A Community Response to Student Mental Health at TRU

Megan Dumas and Cathy Tetarenko

reprinted from "Campuses" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (3), pp. 30-31

Over the last 10 years, counsellors at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) have been seeing a steady rise in the number of students on campus struggling with serious mental health problems. Counsellors have also had more requests from faculty members looking for help to deal with students in distress. While college counsellors are trained to help students with academic issues and personal problems, they are not usually trained to deal with more serious issues like mental illness.

In 2004, David Lidster, chair of Counselling at TRU, approached Kamloops Mental Health, a service of the Interior Health Authority, for advice. His department had worked with Kamloops Mental Health many times before. When a student needed more help than the counsellors could provide, they’d often refer the student to Kamloops Mental Health. But there is more stigma attached to seeking help from community services; students are more likely to get help if it’s right there on campus.

David and some decision makers from TRU met with Kamloops Mental Health staff, including community mental health nurse Cathy Tetarenko. They met a number of times to discuss ways they could partner to benefit the students with more serious needs.

So it was timely when, in 2005, the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information chose TRU as one of four universities to receive one-time, start-up funding to participate in its Campus Project.* The funding was to be put toward the creation of new and innovative projects that would improve the mental health and well-being of TRU students. “We thought, wow, that’s great! Perfect timing!” Cathy says. “Here’s an opportunity to have a mental health and addictions professional from Kamloops Mental Health work on campus. Our idea was that they could they could work directly with students who are having mental health and addiction concerns. They could provide assessments to determine the student’s needs and then follow up with brief intervention, short-term counselling, education and referrals as needed.”

Kamloops Mental Health started looking for someone to take on the project and spend six weeks on the campus. Cathy, having already been involved with the TRU meetings, was considered and asked to work on the project. In February 2006 she started the project and her trial run on campus. She and David met with the vice-president of Student Affairs and together they decided on goals for the project.

TRU Campus Project goals

The purpose of the TRU Mental Health and Addictions Campus Project1 was to:

  • Determine how many students at TRU had mental health and substance use issues

  • Create a “stakeholders team”2 from people on the campus and in the community of Kamloops

  • Assess whether a mental health specialist was truly needed at the TRU campus

  • Identify and assess campus and community services for youth

A broad-sweep look at need

Cathy and David decided that focus groups would be the best way to get feedback on current services, gaps in the system, and the needs of students, faculty and community. They wanted to get a broader perspective on what the issues and needs on campus really were, and what could be done to address them. They held a number of focus groups—with students, staff from many different departments, and members of the community at large who were passionate about the health of students.

Student focus groups: Three student focus groups were held. To get the most authentic feedback, Cathy and David decided the groups should be student organized and led. They invited a fourth-year nursing student and a third-year social work student to lead the groups. Cathy attended the meetings, but was strictly an observer.

Common concerns raised by students in the focus groups were:

  • drug use on campus
  • cultural differences

  • academic, family and work pressures

  • not knowing what services are available

  • stigma

  • lack of awareness of the issues by both TRU staff and students

  • more campus counsellors needed

Community focus group: This group looked at community services currently available for youth. The meetings were attended by representatives from diverse campus and community stakeholders.

Cathy believes strongly that the health of the students affects all members of the community and that a whole-community approach is needed. Mental Health and Addictions as well as Child and Youth Mental Health were invited because they need to work together. Most mental health teams take on clients at age 19. But, since students often start university at 18 or even 17, these service providers need to ensure students don’t “fall through the cracks.” The school board and alternative school took part because many of their students go on to TRU. Special groups like the Kamloops Indian Band, the Sexual Assault Centre and THEO (BC Society of Training for Health and Employment Opportunities) attended in support of special student groups that attend TRU. And, the MLA and the City of Kamloops represented policy and decision makers, who can help make some changes.

Still other participants in the community focus group included:1

  • Canadian Mental Health Association, Kamloops branch

  • Interior Métis Child & Family Services

  • Phoenix Centre (Kamloops Society for Alcohol & Drug Services)

  • RCMP

  • TRU primary care doctor

  • TRU Counselling Department and other TRU faculty and staff

“These partners came together in concern for what we can do on campus to help make life easier for students and assist them to be more successful at university. When I say that, it gives me goose bumps, because I think: wow, this is a group of really compassionate and caring people who really want to see how we, as a community, [could make things better for students],” says Cathy.

One-on-one mental health counselling

During Cathy’s pilot six weeks on campus, she assessed students and made referrals to community mental health services and/or the TRU medical clinic and/or TRU Disabilities Services. She also provided support and education for the students that came for counselling and for staff and counsellors who were dealing with student mental health issues.

Project outcome = mental health help on student turf

What Cathy saw was a real need to support students in a number of ways: from prevention and short-term stress reduction, to supporting students with serious mental health problems. Through the focus groups, it became clear that there was a real need for a mental health professional to be on campus.

Cathy was hired to work at TRU full-time. “It’s an awesome position,” she says. “It’s a one-of-a-kind partnership.” The six-week project was so successful that now other colleges and universities are starting to follow suit.

Cathy’s presence on campus benefits the students in a number of ways. “From a Kamloops Mental Health point of view, it’s a good way [for us] to access students who would not normally access [our] services,” she says. “It provides a less stigmatized environment by meeting students on their own turf. It provides easy, earlier access [by students] to professional services such as assessment, referral, treatment, short-term counselling and brief intervention relating to mental health and problematic substance use.

“It also gives the mental health system the ability to integrate into the culture of the campus, which helps to normalize issues. I can provide consultation for faculty and staff on student issues, and can help promote awareness and education around mental health and substance use. This ultimately benefits the university and the community by better supporting the students so they can be more successful.

”After all,” Cathy concludes, “healthier students equal a healthier community!”

* see pg. 21

About the authors

Megan is a Communications Officer at the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Editorial Assistant for Visions and a recent college graduate.

Cathy was interviewed for this article. She is a Mental Health Specialist who is employed by the Interior Health Authority to work on the Thompson Rivers University campus

  1. Tetarenko, C. (2006). Executive Summary: BCP Campus Project: Determining Mental Health & Substance Abuse/Misuse Needs on Campus. Report prepared for BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information, Canadian Mental Health Association, Thompson Rivers University Counselling Department and Kamloops Mental Health Services, Interior Health Authority.

  2. A “stakeholders team” is usually a team of people with a common interest. In this case, it’s a team of people from different community groups who care about student mental health.


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