First-year Western student Julia Smith needed help. During her second semester away from her family in Calgary, Alta., Smith found herself in the waiting room of Western’s Student Health Services.
“I had already seen a psychiatrist at home for two years before university," said the now-second-year Faculty of Sociology student. "Basically ... it was midterm season, and I realized I couldn't deal with my depression on my own while away from home.”
After seeing an SHS general practitioner later in the week, though, Smith was told it would be two months before she could see a psychiatrist. Frustrated and at an all-time low, Smith started searching for a therapist outside of school — and eventually started paying out of pocket.
One year later, Smith is determined to give Western “a wakeup call.” Two weeks ago, Smith started an online petition to end long wait times for psychiatrists at UWO and, to date, it's attracted over 1,000 supporters.
Further, Huron University College students are speaking out, too. Unaffiliated with Smith, second-year student Nicola Williams launched her own petition, which is asking Huron's executive board for better mental health resources. Over 200 students — more than 15 per cent of Huron's student population — have signed on.
While Smith's and Williams’ asks have rallied students, the director of SHS, Cynthia Gibney, said there's no quick or easy fix. In fact, it’s a province-wide problem. Student demand for mental health resources skyrocketed at SHS between 2013 and last November, with the clinic seeing a 26 per cent increase in students accessing mental health services.
“We know it’s a problem,” said Gibney, who met with Smith to discuss the petition last week. “We’re working hard.... That’s why we exist, to help students. I know it’s frustrating the second you say you need help you don’t get it, but never do we turn away someone in crisis.”
Currently, the self-funded clinic has maxed out its space, using every available office and exam room for its team of 30 physicians. The clinic sees an average of 350 students per day, with 30 per cent of those visits having mental health components.
At Western, however, Gibney said there could be another factor straining the system. While students tend to be the most familiar with SHS, there are other campus resources that are being overlooked and underutilized.
Gibney pointed out the Student Development Centre offers drop-in counselling, and there's the Peer Support Network, affiliate resources and residence councillors. She also mentioned USC student benefits cover some of the cost of off-campus psychological treatment.
Notably, she hopes the UCC's newly established Wellness Education Centre can act as a point place for the University’s campus-wide support network.
Still, both Smith and Williams think there's a problematic and widening gap between students' demand for mental health support and what they're getting.
"Mental health is a big issue, especially in university because of stress and the amount of pressure [students] have on themselves," Smith said. "Everyone was having the same problem, and no one was saying anything about it."
"The change doesn’t have to be immediate, but it does have to happen," added Williams.