By Mads Clement, Contributor
cw: mental health, suicide
In 2018, the Student Representative Assembly voted to rescind the Peer Support Line (PSL), an anonymous hotline that existed to support students and their mental health.
PSL offered students a place to chat with another student trained in peer support about difficulties that they were experiencing. These challenges could range from relationship issues to academic problems.
According to a former vice president (administration) of the McMaster Students Union, the main reason the PSL was rescinded was because it received too many “crisis calls”, which posed a liability to all parties involved. Given student staff were not trained in crisis management or how to address calls with students experiencing suicidal ideation, this is a reasonable concern.
However, closing a mental health-based service has had negative impacts on the student body. We have lost one more resource on our already very small list of mental health resources. Anonymous peer support is extremely valuable. These services can be accessed without the fear of your name being officially attached to your mental health issues and because peers can relate to you on levels that adult therapists often cannot. Having someone who can relate to you without worrying about whether you will be institutionalized is an important facet of mental health care.
For these reasons and many others, students were outraged by the closing of PSL. We took to Twitter and Facebook, asking for answers as to why such a valuable service would be rescinded. It’s hard to find mental health care on campus, and reducing our options makes it even harder.
I actually received a reply from a member of the SRA to my outraged tweets where they wrote; “actually, there are 4 new counsellors that have been added to increase 4,000 hours of counselling to decrease the waiting time that students face when accessing the Student Wellness Centre.”
There are three main reasons why this resolution is an issue.
Problem number one: as mentioned above, going to a therapist is not the ideal option for everyone, as some students are likely to have minimal shared experiences with therapists. This especially applies to marginalized folks; patients of colour are less likely to find a racialized therapist that understands the impacts of systemic racism on their mental health. 2SLGBTQ+ students face a similar struggle when dealing with cisgender, heterosexual therapists. The same can be said of various other marginalized identities.
The second problem is that four more therapists isn’t enough. Ask anyone who goes to therapy at the SWC about how long they wait for appointments. In the majority of cases, there’s a two week to one month gap in between appointments. This is not adequate. On top of that, the therapists and counsellors are so swamped with students that they rarely have time to dedicate care to their patients beyond a surface level interaction. Mental health problems often run a lot deeper than what therapists are able to deal with because of their volume of patients.
Since there are many students floundering for mental health care outside of the SWC and PSL, more pressure has been put on the MSU peer support services: Women and Gender Equity Network, the Pride Community Centre, Student Health Education Centre and Maccess. These services, like PSL, are run by students who have entry level peer support training and are not compensated for their work. They are not equipped to handle the volume of students coming to them for help, let alone the degree of mental distress some of their space users are in. These students are not trained therapists.
Additionally, the majority of students that volunteer for these services are marginalized, which leads to the issue of marginalized students taking on all the mental health work on campus. These students, because of the pressures in their own lives and the added pressures of dealing with the mental health crises of others that they can’t always handle, often develop their own mental health problems and also need support or therapy. This system is unbalanced and unsustainable.
We need a balance of both therapists and peer support services. Therapists can provide specialized care to those who need it, but they are at capacity at McMaster University right now. We need more therapists; specifically therapists who have experiences with marginalization. It’s super weird talking about institutionalized transphobia with a cisgender, heterosexual person. This needs to change.
In addition, the MSU peer support services need more funding and volunteers should be compensated for their work. They put hours of unpaid labour into an unforgiving system that does not support them.
McMaster needs to rework its mental health support systems, and it needs to do this as urgently as possible. Everyone suffers when mental health services are limited, not just mentally ill folks.