Calgary universities shift mental health programs to manage students’ COVID-19 needs

How counselling services have changed and what students should know

Calgary post-secondary schools are tailoring their mental health assistance for students coping with the prolonged impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both Mount Royal University and the University of Calgary are looking at different ways to address student mental health. May 3 to 9 is mental health week in Canada.

Kevin Wiens, the manager of Student Wellness Support at the U of C, said they typically wouldn’t have continued their mental health programs through the spring and summer semesters. This year will be different.

“We have some plans on both the staff and student side of things,” he said.

“In a normal year, we wouldn’t have the same workshops being offered during the springtime.”

Wiens says there has been one main driver to continue with programming. 

“We wanted to take into account the stress and what our campus community is telling us, how they’re doing.”  

If you need help immediately you can access the services you need:

Alberta Health Services 24-hour/7 days per week: 1-877-303-2642 (Toll free)
Distress Centre Calgary – 403-266-HELP (4357)
2-1-1 in Alberta can help direct you to the service you need

From April 1, 2020, to March 31, 2021, Wiens says there was significant demand for their counselling services with 7,300 health appointments. To keep up with the student’s needs, U of C has instituted a new counselling model.

“We’re now just eight months into it. Since September, no student has had to wait more than five days for counselling appointments. That’s going to continue through the spring and summer term as well,” Wiens said.

Their alternative approach stems from previous feedback from the community that wait times were too long. 

“We took that seriously and made the appropriate changes to our service delivery model. We want to hear from the students who have been affected and see what their experiences are,” Wiens said.

Wiens wants students to know that the health services are continuing and encourages students to reach out.

“The demand is there, especially this year. We’re just trying to be as responsive as we can be to take into account the challenging situation we’re finding ourselves this summer in light of COVID-19 and the extra stressors that have come with that.”

MRU’s Take on Mental Health Awareness Month

Mount Royal University. ISAIAH LINDO / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Mirjam Knapik is the Chair of the Counselling Services at MRU. She said that MRU has also changed how they handle mental health.

“There was a time when people just thought about counselling as being responsible for that, but it’s been a shift over the last few years and recognizing all the ways that other departments and areas contribute,” Knapik said.

“For instance, the Student’s Association is running events and Healthy Campus Office is running events.”

All MRU’s services have been switched to online, such as sessions over video and workshops through Google Meet. Knapik also notes that there have been more students utilizing mental health programs due to the pandemic.

“People are struggling because they’re used to working with others…, others struggle with fears around COVID-19, work, and those kinds of things,” she said.

The number of counselling appointments scheduled this year is not available. Knapik says from 2019 to 2020, there were 3,450 one-on-one visits, and 3,879 hours of student participation in workshops and training. 

Knapik said that they’re ready for students seeking quick help. 

“There are openings this week that we keep available for students who are looking for same-day kinds of services or feel some kind of urgency, which sometimes an awareness campaign can create.”

Student connections

The counselling services at MRU tries to stay connected with students. Evaluations are available for those who have attended sessions, and Knapik says a central issue has been communicating availability for services. 

“Sometimes students make assumptions that it’s not available and that we’re probably too busy. We continue to try to let people know that we do have room and we’re available throughout the semesters. Student Counselling Services are open all year.”

Knapik encourages students to utilize the University’s programs and care for their mental health.

“Students sometimes think, ‘Oh, it’s not bad enough for me to come to counselling.’”

However, Knapik said she wants students to know that counselling is about more than mental illness. 

“It’s also about becoming more resilient, building your skills for being well, managing stress or emotions. All those kinds of things are part of that development for many students who begin the journey of university and through all those four years.” 

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