The Counselor Drought

We need more. Not funds towards our establishment's endowment, but funds towards essential services such as expanding the budget for counselors

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With the hopes of forward progress, the newly opened center for Student Wellness Services at Mitchell Hall has ushered in a new era of adversities for Queen’s University students. However, this step forward has also brought us quite a few steps back in the effectiveness and accessibility of their services.  

Once opened, access to mental health services for counseling drastically changed. To make matters worse, my counselor had just left for another job, leaving a vacancy that would take over two semesters to fill. Internal job postings, administrative clearances, whatever you want to call it; the entire process left the office understaffed.

Students returning in the fall were informed that the only way to get a counseling appointment, was to call the office at 8:00 am when the phone lines opened; an hour before the office would. It would be a same day appointment, given that you’re lucky enough that they hadn’t filled up by 8:05 am, and only if the times they had available were outside of your class hours. Also, there is no guarantee that you will see the same counselor.

Counseling turned into a form of walk-in clinic system; only if you had snagged one of the appointments at 8 am. This change was in comparison to the appointments you would make in advance. Most of the time, the wait time is between 2-3 months, unless you have been taken in by one of the counselors as a regular; only then will you get to book an appointment for every 3-4 weeks.

Gone were the months of waiting, and in with the busy phone lines at 8 in the morning. I’ve had countless times where I’ve called to find the cue full and the line busy. Countless times where I was 4th in line, finally connected at 8:12 am and was told there were no more appointments for the day. This was a regular occurrence that I wish I had documented for proof. 

Now if you have a sleep disorder like me, it’s hard enough to even be awake at that hour to make that call. It was very demoralizing to be failed over and over again. According to the staff, I had to restart the whole process all over again. What was this, my 5th time? Here’s what the process loosely looks like:

  1. Intake Appointment: Talk to a counselor for the first time. Tell them your story. Have a case bad enough that they would refer you to one of the counselors that might have space on their docket.
  2. Get referred to a regular counselor. Hope for the best.
  3. Meet your new counselor. Hopefully, this one sticks. As always, hope for the best, but always prepare yourself for the worst.

I seem to have shit luck when it comes to changing counselors. First, there was Hagar, the [only] sexual abuse specialist counselor on campus. Oh wait, no, before that there was another lady whose name I can’t remember (and I’m pretty sure a few more in between). A year later, I received an email that Hagar was too busy and had to refer me to another counselor. At least this time she set me up.

Next was Chuck, a sleep specialist. I was with Chuck for a little over three years. I loved my time with him, except with seniority comes age; some of our appointments were full of rambles that never really got to the point. He told me he was about to retire so I asked to have one last appointment with him to say goodbye. It never happened, and he retired.

Thrown back out into the cold, I set myself back to get back into the process. Next was Deb. She was nice. I saw her for about two years. Then she left.

Now apparently I have a counselor, whose name I can’t even remember, because we haven’t spoken and I keep meaning to make an appointment but never have.

Still, I can’t stop thinking about my peers stuck in this system with me.

I agree that there is no perfect solution, and yet I refuse to believe that this is enough.

Students deserve more. We need more. Not funds towards our establishment’s endowment, but funds towards essential services such as expanding the budget for counselors. You have a new building, now it is yours to fill.

I recently heard that there is no more than 25-30 counselors in total for the whole of our university. Queen’s Total Enrollment in 2017 was 24,143 students. Based on these numbers, that’s loosely over 800 students per counselor. This doesn’t factor in the fact that certain counselors are assigned to specific faculties, meaning that a single student may only have “access” to as many as a handful of counselors.

Take residence students for example. When living in on campus (especially in first year), there are a grand total of 2 counselors assigned to care for the thousands of students living in residence AND the students who live and work as student Dons or students in the Residence Society.

Even if these counselors are expected to meet all of the demands, there is no possible way that a 40-hour week in the office can even begin to make a dent in all the students’ needs. 

Until my school steps up to put their money where their mouth is, students will inevitably continue to fall between the cracks and get lost to countless tragedies.

One of these tragedies was Daniel Megan, my good friend whom I miss dearly. Daniel was admitted to Queen’s at 14 years of age and graduated with honors in Commerce 16′. He was one of my friends who during his time at Queen’s struggled to find support. Two years after his graduation, Dan commit suicide by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. This was after an incident about four months earlier when we admitted him to the emergency room after downing a number of pills from someone else’s medicine cabinet. He is one of many.

I implore the university to change its process on hiring counselors in a way that makes it much easier for new counselors to be hired when replacements are necessary. It is also essential to dramatically increase the amount of counselors on staff for every faculty. Students should not have to depend on non-professional services for critical mental health concerns; even though the Peer Support Center is a wonderful resource for other situations. 

What’s more, students deserve transparency. Give us the names of the counselors who work for us. Is it not strange that Student Wellness Services or ANY mental health services be found on their website? Accountability belongs in the hands of those they serve. It’s time for the staff answer to us.

Michelle Chu is a Kingstonian and Queen’s student, you can find more of her posts on her blog, Unapologetically Canadian, at unapologeticallycanadian.com

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