“Hey Carole, how are you doing?” asked a floormate of Carole Palattao last September.
Instead of the standard “I’m good,” Palattao was honest. Filled with anxiety, she broke down in front of her floormate, someone she barely knew.
First-year music education student Palattao already struggled with generalized anxiety disorder when she first came to Western University, but her anxiety worsened as the stresses of schoolwork and university life mounted.
At the referral of her residence adviser, Palattao sought professional help at Residence Counselling in Ontario Hall.
But Palattao found herself talking to a counsellor she didn’t click with.
“I was pretty embarrassed just to be there. ... I didn't really have that many friends yet, and I just didn't really tell anyone where I was going,” Palattao said.
Palattao also had difficulty booking appointments that fit into her class schedule, noting there are two counsellors for over 1,000 students in residence.
Later in the year, she met with a doctor from Student Health Services, but she wasn’t happy with the appointment either, saying it felt like the doctor was simply going through a checklist. After the visit, Palattao didn't pursue another, and instead, attempted to self-manage for the remainder of her first year.
“I wasn’t really sure where to go from there because it felt like, at that time, there was no space for me at the university.”
Hoping for relief from her symptoms in the summer, Palattao found none. Frustrated that her anxiety wasn’t improving, she became depressed.
Now in March of her second year, Palattao says she’s doing much better. Palattao had a positive experience with a counsellor at the Student Development Centre and found a practitioner at Student Health Services she connected with.
“I'm always telling people this isn't something to be embarrassed about,” Palattao said. “Every time I have told people this kind of story, they always relate to it. They didn't realize other people felt the same way.”
Carole Palattao's journey to wellness wasn't straightforward. She bounced around through several resources, but eventually found the help that was right for her.
Palattao’s story isn’t an uncommon one. As the Toronto Star reported in May, demand for youth mental health services is skyrocketing across the country: between 2013 and 2016, a survey of 25,164 Ontario university students showed there was a 50 per cent increase in anxiety and a 47 per cent increase in depression. Suicide attempts also rose 47 per cent during that period.
In November 2017, four organizations representing Ontario’s 45 universities and colleges said mental health is one of the most pressing challenges on campuses today. This year, four students at Guelph University one student at Waterloo University died by suicide.
At Western, these statistics hit home. Since September, four students have died by suicide. One of the students was first-year student Ajay Adepu, a Faculty of Engineering student who lived in Saugeen-Maitland Hall. Adepu died in February, and his family shared that he struggled with depression in silence, not always willing to seeking help.
“We can’t help but feel distraught as it is a great loss for us all,” Adepu’s family wrote in his obituary. “We all love you, and we’re sorry if we couldn’t understand your pain and how deep it was.”
Last week, the Gazette launched its own survey for Western students to weigh in on mental health and wellness on campus. Of the 347 respondents, 89 per cent said they have struggled with their mental health and wellness during their time at university. Further, the survey shows that 62 per cent of respondents have been diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder — the most common being anxiety and depressive disorders, both of which affected Palattao.
More students now than ever are coming forward to get help with their mental health and wellness. Close to two thirds of respondents to the Gazette’s survey reported they had used campus resources, and Western has laid out a multi-year plan to prioritize student health through their Mental Health and Wellness Strategic Plan.
In the Gazette survey and interviews, Western students reported two things they’d like to see on campus: shorter wait times and more after-hours access to mental health resources. Approximately 40 per cent of students said shorter wait times for counselling was most important for campus mental health and wellness services.
“I have not used residence/other in-house services because wait times would sometimes be up to/exceeding six weeks. In crisis (that isn't life threatening) I need to speak to somebody within a few days,” said one respondent.
Rick Ezekiel, Western’s interim director of student experience, said a number of factors contribute to wait times on campus. One thing that can contribute is misinformation.
“There might be some time points throughout the year where a specific service like an appointment with a psychiatrist might come with a one- to two-month wait time, but for the most part, we have a range of services that could be responsive or available within a week to two weeks time frame and sometimes same-day or next-day.”
University Students’ Council president, Tobi Solebo, thinks wait times could be decreased if students were using the right resources from the start. He said there are services on campus with long wait times and ones without a wait — students need to know where to go.
“If we can start to ensure that students are being led to the right services, it would definitely help with the times.”
Western’s Wellness Education Centre can act as that access point. The WEC is a campus resource that aims to connect Western community members with the best mental health and wellness resources on and off-campus. Opened in May 2016, the WEC has received 1,500 intake forms since then.
“We are the first point of contact for students, and our most important policy is that we have a 'no wrong door policy'. You can ask any question under the sun. We will help you if we can. If we cannot, we will direct you to someone who can,” said Ryan Henderson, a Wellness Education Centre staff member and fourth-year student.
From May 1, 2017 to now, the WEC has seen over 900 students. This is up from last year. Between May 2016 and April 2017, the WEC had 735 students fill out client intake forms.
Although more students are turning to the WEC as an access point, Henderson said the campus resource is underused.
Henderson discussed his frustration with the fact that students don’t know to come to the WEC first. “I find that there is a lot of work to be done on a marketing front.”
Aside from long wait times, other students note that some key resources aren’t accessible after hours or on the weekends.
Like Palattao, Connor Cozens, a second-year computer science student and Saugeen-Maitland Hall residence soph, has faced difficulty booking appointments with on-campus resources. During his first midterm season as a university student, Cozens faced extreme anxiety.
“I started getting really nervous around exam time,” Cozens recalled. “The first one I wrote, I remember my vision kind of, like, fading in and out, and I was just sweating and I was completely unable to focus on anything.”
Cozens’s anxiety hit a peak the morning of a Saturday exam. He woke up having an anxiety attack and realized he needed to find professional help.Aware of some of the resources on campus, Cozens sought out the Student Development Centre’s Psychological Services. To Cozens’s dismay, Psychological Services was closed for the weekend. Posted on the door of Psychological Services was a 24-hour suicide helpline, but Cozens wasn’t suicidal.
“I was like, I don't need that — I'm having anxiety attack. I need to talk to someone.”
Ezekiel confirmed that the majority of campus mental health services operate during regular weekday business hours only, but he said that the university partners with community groups, such as the Canadian Mental Health Association, for 24/7 service.
“I feel that we are well-equipped on our campus to respond at any time of day, but in terms of regular counselling, we were predominantly operating on a model that focuses on Monday to Friday business hours,” Ezekiel said.
Further, Ezekiel said that during high demand times of the year, such as finals, some services on campus such as Student Health Services offer extended hours.
Cozens believes Western should offer weekend counselling during the academic year.
“If the school is putting high-stress situations like midterms and exams on the weekend,” Cozens said, ”there should be those [mental health and wellness] services on the weekend, because I walked up to the door and I sat down in the hallway, and I just cried for a solid 10 to 15 minutes.”
No two journey's to wellness are the same. Scroll through this timeline to learn about Connor Cozens's story.
More than ever this year, students have spoken up about campus mental health.
In this past USC election, students overwhelmingly voted to include mental health and wellness as a high priority of Western’s Strategic Plan even if at the expense of funding and support of other priorities with 6,136 voting yes — 89.3 per cent of the vote.
“More than anything it is a statement from students saying that this university needs to do more,” Solebo said. “It passed overwhelmingly, and that speaks volumes.”
Solebo added due to OHIP+ savings, the 2018/19 USC student health plan will include an additional $250 for students to use on mental health counselling.
Student mental health and wellness is on the administration’s radar, and there are a number of initiatives in the works.
On Sunday, provost Janice Deakin sent an email to students informing them that Thames Hall, which is currently undergoing renovations, will house an integrated Health and Wellness Centre. The centre will colocate Student Health Services, Psychological Services and a wellness education area. Construction is predicted to start in spring 2019.
Previously, the administration asked students to contribute $10 million to the project through an increased student fee. However, many student leaders and the USC rejected the request. Months later, Western agreed to fund the project.
Vice-provost of academic programs, John Doerksen, said the university ultimately recognized the importance of the mental health initiative and its leadership was persuaded.
“We realized that mental health is a really important priority for our university community,” Doerksen said. “We’re rolling out the Mental Health [and Wellness] Strategic Plan for the institution, and a part of that plan calls for an integrated health and wellness service.”
“It’s really exciting that the university is embarking on this project. I think that it is in response to a lot of the feedback that they heard from students,” Solebo said.
This week Western is launching a pilot program for sharing health records between campus health providers, such as Psychological Services and Student Health Services, on an electronic health record system. Ezekiel said Ryerson University and McMaster University use similar systems.
“[A shared electronic record system] enables the healthcare providers to provide more robust care,” Ezekiel said. “It cuts down on some of the administrative work and some of the processes students have to navigate to have their health record shared across service providers.”
Ezekiel said the initiative will give Western a good sense of student needs and service access across campus.
Palattao thinks the electronic record system and consolidation of resources into one building are steps in the right direction.
“I think if they’re all in one place, you’re more likely to seek out help because you have one target place that you’re supposed to go,” Palattao said.
To students currently struggling, Palattao shares one piece of advice: keep on trying.
“If I hadn't gone back, then I wouldn't be where I am now,” Palattao said. “It's a really hard thing to do to have to tell random people like professionals the inner workings of your mind and your heart, but I think once you breakthrough with someone, it's worth all the trying.”
For a complete list of mental health resources at Western look here.
The Wellness Education Centre is located in the University Community Centre, room 76 and is open Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The Canadian Mental Health Association's crisis response line is: 519-433-2023.