Mental-health crisis clinic earns community backing

Western students experiencing a mental-health crisis will have access to a confidential walk-in clinic on campus three evenings a week as part of a ‘game-changing’ program funded through the London Community Foundation.

The project is a collaboration among Canadian Mental Health Association-Middlesex (CMHA-Middlesex), King’s University College, Fanshawe College and Western.

“This recognizes the dire need some students have, particularly during high-stress times such as exams and end of semester,” said Cynthia Gibney, Director of Western’s Student Health Services. “Mental-health issues among young people have become a real problem, not just at Western but at postsecondary institutions across Canada, and we need to provide supports that make sense for them during tumultuous times.”

The University Students’ Council (USC) sought the partnership after recognizing the value of services offered at the Walk-in Crisis Centre operated by CMHA-Middlesex, said Mac McIntosh, USC Student Programs Officer. The crisis clinic on Huron Street has become a lifesaver to Londoners in distress and, at the same time, has reduced pressure on hospital emergency departments.

Building on momentum from last year’s students’ council leadership, CMHA funded the first round of a pilot project last year and Western funded a second pilot during spring exams this year. During each session, about 70 people came to the clinics for after-hours crisis care.

Staffed by CMHA crisis counsellors with peer-support volunteers in the reception area, the satellite clinic is free to undergraduate and graduate students. It will operate 5-9 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from Nov. 21-Dec. 14, and then resume next semester. Satellite clinics will also operate at King’s and Fanshawe.

The drop-in clinic will use existing space at Student Health Services, University Community Centre, Room 11. CMHA counsellors will help students with problem-solving and coping strategies and, where appropriate, make referrals to additional or ongoing supports both on-campus and off-campus.

The London Community Foundation has committed a three-year grant of $236,000 as part of its Community Vitality Grants that support lasting, collaborative transformation.

“Too many young people are falling through the cracks in our mental-health system. We are proud to support this initiative that will help support early intervention and help bridge the gap so students can receive the care they need, when they need it,” said Martha Powell, President & CEO of the London Community Foundation.

Lori Hassall, Director of Crisis and Short-Term Intervention Programs with CMHA-Middlesex, said, “We are really keen to be part of this partnership. One of the surprises we noticed when the crisis centre opened almost two years ago was the number of students we saw. We’re really pleased this will allow us to help students on campus, in spaces where they may feel more comfortable.”

Western offers a variety of health services during office hours, Gibney said, and no one in crisis is ever turned away.

McIntosh said the fact students can drop in without an appointment to the after-hours satellite clinic will be comforting to many. “We’re seeing a brand-new cohort of students who wouldn’t ordinarily seek mental-health support. The idea you can drop in and be seen immediately by someone is welcome to students. You make sure you get the service you need today to feel better.”

He said some students can deal well with the pressures of the school year, until exams hit. “There are stressful times of the year and I can absolutely relate that people are not always prepared for it.”

During those pilot sessions, students spoke with counsellors about issues such as anxiety, school stressors, relationships, depression, grief and suicidal ideation.

While faced with some of the same stressors, graduate students also deal with different pressures than undergraduates, said Madison Bettle, vice-president (Student Services), Society of Graduate Students.

Grad students are under pressure to teach, to be students and researchers, to work on their dissertations and publish papers, to compete for funding and vie for academic jobs and often to support families at the same time.

“In graduate school, there’s a stigma about saying you have mental-health struggle. We’re expected to be leaders and mentors,” Bettle said, “and to be people who offer support rather than people who sometimes need support.”

Those stresses are one reason SOGS launched Grad Wellness Week, with workshops and talks about self-care, managing stress and gaining access to health plans. She hopes the project continues and expands beyond the allotted times, to become a permanent resource on campus.

Bettle said the drop-in clinic will help students normalize the idea that they sometimes need help through the bumps of life and academia.

“At the very least, having something with the word ‘crisis’ in the title will destigmatize having to seek mental health services,” she said.