Thursday, July 18, 2019

Under pressure: How Camosun College’s counselling services are holding up under stress

February 20, 2019 by Fred Cameron, features writer

In April of last year, Nexus ran a feature story on mental health and student support at Camosun College. During the interview process, staff shortages within the counselling department were identified and brought to my attention. At the time of the interview, counsellor Chris Balmer informed me that six students, four of whom were categorized as urgent appointments, had to be placed with counsellors at the Camosun campus they didn’t attend. 

I brought this to the attention of Camosun vice president of student experience Joan Yates, who agreed that this was an area of concern that needed to be addressed. She said that a new director would be coming in to assess all of the college’s services.

Nearly a year has passed; it seems like the right time to check in and update students on the progress. As of January of this year, Counselling Centre chair Laura Paetkau stepped down, making way for John Scheunhage to step in as chair of the department.

“We are in the process of switching, but I am now the chair for the next little while,” says Scheunhage. “It’s something that rotates. I’ll be finishing a year and a half of [Paetkau’s] term because she is ending her term a bit early.”

Scheunhage says that the chair is someone in the counselling department who takes on an additional duties and responsibilities within the team.

“I’ll be counselling students, but for the next year and a half I’ll be in the chair role as well,” he says. “That’s a lot of administration, scheduling, and liaising with our new director of student affairs, who started last year. His name is Evan Hilchey. That was part of the college’s commitment to focusing more on student affairs, or the lives of students. So counselling will roll up to helping students on their lives outside of academia.”

Hilchey says that his role is to provide leadership to academic advising, counselling, the Office of Student Support, and the Mental Health and Well-being Strategy.

“And to seek ways to enhance supports for students across the college,” he says, “who may experience a variety of different challenges, including mental-health and well-being challenges.”

Yates says that Hilchey’s portfolio covers a number of different areas.

“Counselling is one, advising is another, health and well-being is under his portfolio, student conduct issues, and student security and safety, and the student support manager,” says Yates. “So policies like sexualized violence, he looks after. He is a great student services professional who understands what the trends are.”

This story originally appeared in our February 20, 2019 issue.

The Counselling Centre is excited to have Hilchey aboard, says Scheunhage.

“It’s a clear sign from the college that this is a priority, and a sign that we’re trying to acknowledge those services in a more official way,” Scheunhage says. “The teams that he manages are not different. They’ve been here for a long time, but now we actually have a bit more of a leader.”

Hilchey is taking on the administrative duties to free up other faculty to do their core work, says Yates.

“Our counsellors are here to support students wholeheartedly,” says Yates. “They are faculty and they have a high level of professionalism. They are up on their discipline, so they know current trends and treatments, and they’re well connected with the community.”

Scheunhage says that the counselling services at Camosun are very similar to those at any college.

“Free counselling is available to students at all colleges and universities in BC,” says Scheunhage. “We offer both same-day, urgent service, which we make available on both campuses, and regular sessions, more for ongoing issues that are important, but not necessarily needing to be addressed that day.”

There certainly has been an increase in the volume of students needing support at Camosun College, says Yates.

“Our intention, under Evan, was looking at some ways and means of addressing this, and we have,” says Yates. “The college has invested in some more counselling support. That was, in large part, to buy us some time to do a bit of a review. The review has now been funded by the college, but it hasn’t happened yet.”

Yates says the review is really about how Camosun offers services and what some of the trends might look like.

“The review was absolutely not judging the work of the folks in the counselling department,” Yates says. “They’re doing a phenomenal job. It’s important work, and they’re doing it well. It was more about process. So what is the nature of some of the inquiries? Are there other areas that could be doing a bit of the triage, for example? How can we help students to identify resources earlier in a more proactive way?”

Hilchey says the college is in the process of articulating a review to look at counselling services.

“In particular, to look at the way in which our organizational structure within counselling and the service delivery model is meeting the demand,” says Hilchey, “both from an operational standpoint and a service-delivery standpoint around the type of issues that students are coming with. Post-secondary is a complex environment—the variety of pressures that students are facing, with things like employment, financial impact, [and] complex pressures of engaging in academia all contributing to that.”

It’s important for the college to look at student services and supports holistically, says Hilchey. 

“It does go outside of just counselling,” says Hilchey. “Another example is the Office of Student Support, and the way in which that office provides support for students who are victim survivors of sexualized violence, as well as providing support for students with complex mental health who may require case-management support for navigating the variety of services and supports in the college community.”

The trouble is this: students can’t wait for a review. They need help and they can’t wait. Hilchey says that he’s aware that the counselling department continues to seek ways to better support students through a variety of mediums and methods that meet students where they’re at.

“The counselling team has piloted a new model this year to assure that there is counselling for urgent appointments available at both campuses,” he says.

Scheunhage says that because of an increase in the number of students at Camosun paired with an increase in awareness of mental-health issues, Hilchey was able to increase the number of counsellors.

“We have noticed a huge increase in demand,” says Scheunhage. “We showed that there have been large increases in volume, especially for the same-day appointments, with around a 30- to 40-percent increase. Evan was able to get, for the September-to-April time frame, a term full-time counsellor. We did notice a bit of an increase. It worked out to about half of a full-time.”

There are different groups of counsellors at the college, too, says Scheunhage.

“We’ve roughly branched them into groups,” Scheunhage says. “There are counsellors who focus on international students. Then there are the domestic students, and then there are two half-time counsellors who are dedicated to working with Indigenous students. There are subtle differences in how those students are served, but that’s the three groups of students.”

The counsellors work together to support students across the college, says Hilchey.

“There are opportunities of sharing of resources and information to best support students,” he says. “The benefit is that notion of collaboration among the counsellors who are here to support students holistically.”

Scheunhage says that none of the three areas is overwhelmed at present, but wait times can change during the course of a semester.

“Generally in September and January, where there is, in effect, a renewal of requests for counselling, you might be able to see a counsellor for a regular appointment within a week or so, maybe two, but pretty quickly that ramps up for domestic students to three or four weeks,” says Scheunhage. “We can generally see people about once a month now. We’ve had to do that because the demand is so high that we have to spread things out more.”

Wait times differ slightly within the department, says Scheunhage, adding that international students are usually able to book an appointment within a week or two, while Indigenous students typically see waits of one to three weeks. When a student arrives in the counselling office, they fill out an intake form where they can choose the reason for their visit: personal issues, personal/mental health issues, academic issues, or career issues, Scheunhage says.

“Far and away it’s personal and mental health issues where the majority of issues are,” Scheunhage says. “We see it in the news, and across all of society: depression, anxiety, challenges around stress. And then life issues like relationships [and] housing is a growing issue in Victoria, both the cost and the difficulty of finding appropriate housing. Things like that are really impactful.”

Yates says that the counselling department is doing amazing work, but the college needs to be looking at proactive strategies as well so that students feel safe and ready for the world when they graduate.

“That said, there is still a lot still to do,” Yates says. “We’re just scratching the surface here. We are continuing, and trying to grow the mental-health strategy—in other words, working with students so they recognize stressors, signs, and symptoms before it’s really problematic for them; doing things in a proactive way around health and well-being. We need to be getting to folks early.”

Helping students build resiliency, Hilchey says, is about meeting students where they’re at and providing a variety of different mediums or ways in which students can engage in their own self-reflection.

“That may mean looking at the way in which we provide resources and materials to students,” says Hilchey, “the way we proactively provide those materials, or the way that we provide information in a more consumable and readily accessible manner. There are ways in which we can collaborate with external and internal organizations to better provide information to students and support that resiliency-building.”

Resiliency is something that is really important for students, says Scheunhage.

“With the Student Affairs division being formed, we’re looking at maybe doing more workshops,” says Scheunhage. “One thing counselling has tried to do is more psychoeducation. We’re doing the responsive thing with the sessions, but could we be doing more proactive work with psychoeducation?”

In an attempt to help reach students earlier, Theresa Wanninger has been hired as the student wellness ambassador at Camosun. Wanninger says that everything she does is related to mindfulness, wellness, nutrition, exercise, and health. 

“I host events, I do workshops with students, and pop-up booths around campus,” says Wanninger. “We’ve had a creativity booth, journalling and mandalas, a free yoga class; we have a naturopath who can answer all kinds of questions for students, and a tai chi class as well. It’s all about student wellness in their day-to-day life. I want students to look at what they can do to be mindful and take care of themselves.” 

Wanninger—who also mentions the college was involved with the Bell Let’s Talk campaign—says she thinks there has been a rise in people who are trying to work on their mental-health issues.

“There is a rise in depression and anxiety, but people are opening up to talking about it. Maybe it seems like more people are depressed because people are actually mentioning that they are feeling sad, or they’re struggling with anxiety, whereas before they may not have brought it up,” she says. “I think there has to be more effort to do the little things in their day-to-day life to improve their mental health.”

Wanninger says that she recently created a wellness club that meets every Thursday from 2:30 to 4:30 in a classroom at Lansdowne. (The room they meet in is different every week, but details can be found through the Facebook Camosun Wellness Club group.)

“I want it to be peer counselling, but more like a community,” Wanninger says. “I don’t want people to feel like they have to show up. I think it’s important, so I have the space booked, and I’m going to be there. It’s not called peer counselling, but when we do an activity, like we start colouring, people start talking about things. I’m not giving advice or anything, I’m just listening, and the others are too.”

There are conversations going on within the institution looking at ways in which an appropriate peer counselling or peer support model could be implemented, say Hilchey.

“There are no plans, per se, in relation to instituting that in September, but we are looking at the way in which we provide proactive supports to our community through the use of a peer-based model,” he says. “There are other institutions that have a robust peer-based model in place that we’re connecting with to determine what that would look like in a Camosun context.”

It’s all part of the larger discourse and planning around the ways in which Camosun provides supports for students, including a peer-based model, say Hilchey.

“It’s important to think about the unique nature of the students that attend Camosun whose programs might run from four months to four years, which impacts the availability of students to engage in those types of experiences,” says Hilchey. “We also need to look at what type of experiences are attractive to students to engage as a leadership-development opportunity or an applied learning experience in the context of providing supports around mental health and well-being.”

Peer support has historically been challenging at community colleges, says Scheunhage.

“Not for lack of need, or lack of interest,” Scheunhage says. “To get a program like that up and running you need people to be around for a while, to sort of pass on the energy and knowledge and build the community of people who are giving peer support. Colleges tend to have students who are here for one to two years. I know there have been efforts in the past around ideas in that realm, but it’s getting it off the ground that is the struggle.”

Camosun College Student Society (CCSS) student wellness and access director Eleanor Vannan says that she has very good relationships with Student Services and with the counselling department, but she would love to see more student support.

“One of the things I hear a lot from students is that services are overtaxed,” says Vannan. “There is too much demand for near-instant turnaround. We also have a large percentage of the student population that is hesitant to use services on campus. It’s concerning. I think that can lead to a culture where students are not always sure if the institution is there to support them, or to protect the institution.”

Vannan says she would be quite happy to see an institutional review of the Counselling department to see what is working and to identify the areas in need of improvement. More frequently than she would like, Vannan sees students who aren’t finding the support they need coming to the CCSS for help.

“In an ideal world, our students aren’t in crisis and our institutional structures are easy to understand and navigate for students, but that’s not always the case,” says Vannan. “That’s where we come in as student leaders who understand the infrastructure of the institution, to help guide them through the process. Sometimes it’s that first step of talking to them about managing expectations around getting into the counselling program, and what to expect from that. Often what they need is advocacy work in addition to counselling and support.”

Putting a Band-Aid on the problem by adding a few counselling sessions is not going to solve the problem long-term, Vannan says.

“I think that we need to create more opportunities within class structure, and also within the institution, to teach students how to be their own advocate and navigate the structure,” says Vannan. “I certainly think that working that into courses and having instructors, who, for most students, are the primary contact with the institution, help students to understand the structure of the college. The CCSS has been providing support to students, and helping them to grow and become their own advocates, but it would certainly be appreciated if the institution offered more help for students to develop those skills.”

Camosun is providing pretty good services, says Yates, adding that students should also be looking at the external community for support resources.

“Many folks in the college community, back in the day, would have got support and services for some of their issues from community-based supports,” says Yates. “That’s kind of dissipated, and now some of those options are coming back. So we’re working with a couple of external agencies with respect to that as well, with some great partnering.”

The Student Affairs team works collaboratively with both internal and external organizations, says Hilchey.

“An example of that would be the Foundry, which brings together health and social services, at a single point, for young adults,” says Hilchey. “We work quite collaboratively with students around seeking ongoing supports within our community for such things as mental health and well-being, while ensuring that they remain supported on campus and connected to academic supports as well.”

Foundry Victoria is an integrated youth service that specializes in serving people from ages 12 to 24.

“It’s for the entire population of Victoria and the surrounding communities,” says Foundry clinical coordinator Amy Schactman. “We provide mental wellness support, primary health care, peer support, and social services all in one stop. We have a team of social workers, counsellors, peer support workers, physicians, a psychiatrist, and nursing staff all providing support for youth. We do a lot of work to help navigate systems.”

Camosun students are utilizing the services at the Foundry, says Schactman.

“We are available, especially the walk-in counselling, and the primary care team is definitely seeing youth coming from Camosun,” she says. “We don’t offer a lot of long-term follow up, but we are encouraging students to go back to Camosun for follow-up counselling, or into adult mental-health systems if there is a need.”

Similar to other services in town, Foundry Victoria has extensive wait times depending on the services, but they also offer other resources, says Schactman.

“One of the neat things the Foundry does have is a great online tool,” says Schactman. Our site at has a lot of information around mental wellness, and substance use, as well. The more we can help young people early on, the more we can support them in the long term. We also provide a lot of education and awareness in the community, or we can link people to other partners who do that.”

Recent Camosun grad Melanie Winter is now working as the operations manager at Foundry Victoria. When Winter was at Camosun, she was involved in the Wellness Club and was the CCSS student wellness and access director.

“I got to work alongside [Camosun’s] Chris Balmer and Joan Yates on working groups, and had an opportunity to be a part of the community,” says Winter. “I wouldn’t say that my business degree in Human Resources prepared me or left me unprepared for my current role. I think that my education combined with my passion for mental health allowed me to fit into this role.”

Winter speaks very highly of the Counselling department at Camosun.

“I accessed counselling at Camosun with ease and felt it was better than counselling in the community because as a student, I was able to stay on campus and get support,” she says. “I would say that Camosun helped me navigate my own life so I could be successful as a student, and have emotional support when I needed it.”

Winter says that when she was struggling, the best thing she could have done was reach out to somebody at the school, even if it wasn’t a counsellor.

“Reaching out for help in the basic form of somebody to talk to is number one,” says Winter. “You never know who you are going to meet, and preferably it’s on campus, who can help connect you to the community; someone who is an ambassador who could help me figure out the system. I think [it’s better to be] reaching out to whoever you can on campus, and having them help you find the way, rather than going blindly out into the community.”

Winter says that her role with the CCSS also helped prepare her for her role with Foundry Victoria.

“If somebody came and saw me, I knew how to navigate not only at Camosun but out in the community, so I was able to help people find out what would work best for them,” she says. “As a student leader, my goal was to help people figure out how to use the best of everything on campus instead of having another closed door in the community.”

Scheunhage says that the role of his department is both to provide support for students and to refer them to the appropriate services.

“That’s a huge part of what we already do—maintaining connections to other kinds of services, be it private, non-profit, or in the health system,” says Scheunhage.

Awareness of mental health is rising, which is great because there is less stigma, says Scheunhage.

“There is a slow and continuous progress,” says Scheunhage. “A big part of what we know about mental-health recovery is a sense of empowerment and autonomy—a sense that ‘I can do something about this.’ That doesn’t mean that you don’t need help, or it’s just in your head, but a big part of counselling is helping people identify, in their own lives, that they may have resources they hadn’t thought about, and in that conversation it builds a sense of empowerment, and the ability to be able to respond to the stresses. We don’t want to build a mental-health system where regardless of the problem the reaction is to go and ask someone for help. That would turn into a big math problem pretty quickly. And it wouldn’t ultimately serve people. It’s the ‘teach people to fish’ model of improving their life.”

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