Last November, undergraduates decided to fund a new expansion to Health Services. The expansion plan included provisions to expand mental health services to meet the needs of the current student population. Also considered was a proposal for a new Student Services Complex, which would include larger offices for Counseling Services. Students declined the proposal for a variety of reasons, many citing that insufficient student space was a result of administrative short-sightedness and as such it was not the responsibility of students to foot the bill. Administrative short-sightedness indeed. The `Yes' committee cited that Counseling Services was one third of the size needed for the current student body, and that the administration is continuing to focus on growth. The states of both the mental health section of Health Services and Counseling Services are reflected in the chilling stories of students who, for whatever reason, tried to take their own lives. Due to the sensitive nature of the issue, all student names have been replaced with pseudonyms and where possible names have been left out altogether.
Jamie made their attempt in the Winter of their first year. I didn't ask Jamie why they made the attempt, but got the idea that it had to do with a combination of the season and mid-terms. I asked if Jamie had reached out to anyone prior to the attempt; they had not. One evening life was simply too much and Jamie took an overdose of pills. Friends found them and called an ambulance, and Jamie was taken to Grand River Hospital. There begins a de-humanizing nightmare. Jamie was kept in the emergency ward due to a lack of beds until they could be transferred to a hospital in their home town. Unfortunately for Jamie, an emergency ward is not designed for even moderate term care: they had no access to a proper shower or clean underwear for the three-and-a-half days before the transfer. Things continued to get worse: Jamie was collected for the transfer at 5am without warning, and sent on a six hour ride tied down and without a washroom break. This was the worst of Jamie's treatment.
In the aftermath Jamie's associate dean was very understanding, and Jamie's attempt and subsequent hospitalization did not result in a failed term. Jamie was less impressed with the followup from Health Services and Counseling Services. The doctor they met with at Health Services was not familiar with the generic names of Jamie's prescriptions (while knowing the brand names). Jamie received a call from Counseling Services, but after one meeting with them "didn't want anything to do with them". Jamie felt that the counselor was simply listening to them without offering much advice, and that the process for making an appointment was glacial. Jamie's story raises several issues with the way modern society handles suicide attempts, both in prevention and in treating attempts. Jamie's story only touches on Counseling Services, but their complaint is not isolated.
I now turn to the story of another individual: Alex. Alex made their attempt in third year after a particularly hard term and the successful attempt of a friend. Alex had gone to see Counseling Services a few times prior to their attempt. Alex's first experience with Counseling Services was months before hand. Alex related a similar experience to Jamie: the counselor wasn't really actively engaging them, merely nodding and listening. Alex was also referred to Heath Services after mentioning trouble sleeping, and was prescribed a sedative. After further consultation with Health Services' psychiatrist they were also prescribed an anti-depressant. This worked for quite some time, until Alex's lab partner and friend took his life. This was a tipping point for Alex, who felt they should have seen it coming and done something. Some of Alex's other friends did notice their troubles, and encouraged them seek help. Alex shrugged them off, citing their previous experiences and claiming that nothing would come of a meeting with Counseling Services. Later in the day leading up to this discussion Alex made their attempt. Alex didn't really want to discuss the trip to the hospital and the aftermath, however, they did mention similar understanding and assistance from their associate dean.
Jamie and Alex were the only individuals I met who brought up their own suicide attempts when I started conducting interviews on the state of Counseling Services, and I lack the words to express the despair in their voices when recalling their difficulties with Counseling Services. In other interviews students with less severe situations expressed similar woes: one individual lamented being told the wait for an appointment was six weeks, half a term, and to instead pursue an off-campus alternative; this individual simply gave up, their issue being time sensitive. There were two main themes in the interviews: that it was impossible to get an appointment in a reasonable amount of time and that counselors were disappointingly passive.
One interesting story came from a former don, who discussed the suicide prevention training and other guidance given to dons on the issue. A sticking point for this don, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, was that no matter how dire the situation and how great a resident's need, physical contact was to be avoided. No hugs, no comforting arms or shoulders. This idea ran contrary to the don's personal beliefs regarding handling crises and was a major factor in their decision not to don again.
Counseling Services Director Dr. Tom Ruttan was on vacation when The Chevron called, and we were unable to reach his substitute before press time, so we cannot report on an official response to the student sentiment we found. However, the problem does not seem to be with the individual counselors or Counseling Services, but higher up. The University's administrators have consistently mentioned plans of growth, more undergraduates, and more programs. These designs are codified in the sixth decade plan in relative detail for a strategic document. Compared to the growth objectives, objectives necessary to support such growth (like expanding the overloaded Counseling and Health Services) are given only vague mentions in the plan, and left secondary to expansions of the co-op program and Career Services.
If you know someone who you feel is in trouble or who has mentioned suicide, or you personally are considering taking your life, we encourage you to seek help. The UW Police provide 24/7 assistance on campus at extension 22222. For 24/7 support off campus the mobile crisis team may be reached at 519-744-1813 or simply call the emergency services dispatcher 911.
by Charlie Chaplain