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The hole in our health care

The prevalence of mental illness in university students is growing.

And according to one researcher, we’re a long way away from reversing that trend.

Dr. Stan Kutcher is the Chair of Adolescent Mental Health at the IWK Health Centre. He is also the Chair of Dalhousie’s Department of Psychiatry. He is a local, national and international expert in the field.

“Mental disorders are the single largest health problem for young people,” he says. “Most mental disorders start before age 25, and many of the disorders that start at this age, i.e. depression, manic depression, some anxiety disorders, eating disorders, substance abuse, and schizophrenia, are chronic iIInesses.”

At Dalhousie University, the growing problem can be measured at one place. Last year was the Counselling Services Centre’s busiest year ever. More than 1,500 students from Dal, King’s and the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design used their services.

But Victor Day, the director of the centre, says that they are unable to meet all of the needs because they do not have the resources.

“Many students seek individual counselling, and we cannot meet all expectations or requests, and we do encourage some who ask for individual counselling to try group programs and workshops,” Day wrote in an email.

A Dal student, who wishes to remain anonvmous, says there’s a lack of attention to the types of counselling available.

“It could be streamlined by having short descriptions of who to contact with a range of problems,” says the third year medical student who uses the centre to cope with learning difficulties.

“There was nothing in the description of services that could speak to that, so counselling is what people recommended,” she says.

Kutcher says this shortage of treatment resources is not unique to universities. But he says that through “innovative partnershrps” service providers can fight the “grossly insufficient” resources in the system.

He says mental health service providers are working in silos when they should be working together.

“I don’t really know exactly what Dal’s counselling services linkages arc, but they have never come to us (at the IWK) asking to collaborate, and we have tremendous expertise with mental illness,” he says.

“It is a complex problem and it requires a complex solution. Sharing resources and services will save them money.”

About 15 per cent of university students will be diagnosed with a mental illness while at school, a recent article in the Globe and Mail says. But this is a misleading number. More than half of students struggling with their mental health don’t ask for help.

Kutcher says people don’t seek help in part because of the stigma surrounding mental illness. To fight stigma, Kutcher and his team at the IWK wrote a booklet called Transitions. It’s a how-to guide for students moving up from high school to university. It delivers information in a way that encourages readers to talk about factors like peer pressure, eating disorders, alcohol, gambling and suicide freely, and self-help seek if they need to.

The booklet was meant to be included in every Halifax university’s orientation pack. The IWK gave it out for free the first year, and universities would have to buy the program in consecutive years.

All the universities in Halifax boughtt the booklet after the first year except Dal. Day says that when VP (student services) Dr. Bonnie Neuman asked about counselling services’ experience with Transitions they told her that none of the 1,525 students they had last year indicated learning about the centre through the booklet.

No mental health information was included in this year’s frosh packages. But the packages did include a USB drive that contained information on Dal’s Counselling Centre, which is an overburdened resource. The busiest year for the centre was last year – regular patients waited an average of 38 days before receiving treatment. The centre’s prioritized wait times are based on a triage system.

But a direct question about Transitions was not on the survey that Day is basing his data on. Kutcher says that in his survey of students from all of Halifax’s universities, 20 per cent sard they sought mental health help, and 40 per cent talked about mental health with a friend, as a result of reading Transitions.

Kutcher says it is the responsibility of the institution to provide info about good health care to its students.

“If Dal is providing informatron about nutrition or sexual health they should be equally providing information about (mental illness). To do otherwise is to discriminate.”

With files from Lucy Scholey

This article originally appeared in issue 142-02, published on Oct. 2, 2009.

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