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Stories | 05.01.23

Community partners collaborate to strengthen mental health support for struggling students

When Hema Bhindi first arrived at LaSalle College Vancouver in 2019, she became the vocational school’s first on-site counselor, providing mental health-related support to its 1,200 students.

Photo of Hema Bhindi

Hema Bhindi

“It was pretty hectic,” said Bhindi, remembering she would often have one-on-one counseling sessions with three dozen students in any given month, on top of any additional support other students may need. “But for the first time, students could connect with counseling services on campus with me.”

Prior to Bhindi, students often had to call a 1-800 number to access mental health services.

“The students weren’t impressed with that,” she said. “They couldn’t reach anyone. But I think everyone at LaSalle, especially the president and chief academic officer, recognized the importance of providing more mental health support for these young adults.”

According to a September 2022 report by the Mental Health Commission of Canada and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, 75% of mental health-related problems are first diagnosed between the ages of 16 and 24. More than half — 52% — of college students experienced debilitating depression so severe that it limited their ability to function in school.

In addition, 1 in 3 students reported that on-campus services do not meet the diverse needs of students, and only 28% of students were aware of how to access services, according to the report exploring the experiences of Canadian college students.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the U.S. and May 1-7 is Mental Health Awareness Week in Canada.

Bolstering on-campus support was a major reason why, six months after Bhindi started, the school didn’t hesitate to embrace the opportunity to partner with Adler Community Health Services in Vancouver (ACHS Vancouver).

“It was important for students to see that we care about their well-being and for them to know that someone will be available for them one way or another,” Bhindi said.

Today, a team of about 25 people from ACHS Vancouver, including five doctoral interns from Adler University’s Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) in Clinical Psychology program and 14 practicum students from several master’s degree programs, provide a series of mental health programs at LaSalle.

These services include individual therapy and group sessions, conducting screenings and assessments, offering social support, and developing wellness and educational programs —for students and faculty — that help demystify and destigmatize mental health care.

“And we’re able to provide these at no cost to the LaSalle students,” said Nardeen Awadalla, Psy.D., clinical faculty with ACHS Vancouver. “Hema and the ACHS team are continually adjusting our programs to meet the students’ needs.”

Photo of LaSalle College Vancouver campus

LaSalle College Vancouver is a boutique-design school offering applied arts programs that help graduates build rewarding, lifelong careers.

Formidable years

In deciding where to do her internship as a fifth-year Psy.D. student, Alyssa Leyba thought working at LaSalle was a perfect fit.

Photo of Jessica Presutto

Jessica Presutto

“I enjoy working with younger people, especially young adults,” Leyba said. “It’s such an interesting time in people’s lives. They’re figuring out their identity, their future, and what they want for themselves.”

The students at LaSalle are generally between 18 to their mid-20s.

But with newfound independence comes a lot of struggles.

“Every client is so unique,” said ACHS intern Jessica Presutto, also a fifth-year Psy.D. program student. “LaSalle students’ needs are quite complex. Many of my clients have disclosed difficulties with loneliness and isolation, relationship challenges, school and academic stress, severe anxiety and depression, learning challenges, and suicidality.”

Adding to the uniqueness of LaSalle is that nearly half of the student population are international students, most from India, pursuing training in gaming, graphic design, interior design, culinary arts, and fashion.

When Leyba and Presutto began their internships in August 2022, they quickly realized how urgent the need was.

Photo of Alyssa Leyba

Alyssa Leyba

“Many of these students come here without family support, and they’ve never been to Canada before,” Leyba said. “They’re facing a lot of challenges, from isolation and homesickness to finding a job or a new apartment. So, to have this ACHS team be able to support them, it really makes the work that we do very meaningful.”

Connecting students to services

For the most part, when a student is seeking mental health support or if a faculty or staff member thinks a student could benefit from such help, they reach out to Bhindi. As the point person, Bhindi would assess the student and refer them to the ACHS team.

ACHS then conducts an intake process to ensure the student is assigned to an intern or practicum student and receives the appropriate support.

The interns are on-site from 9-5, five days a week. Leyba sees three LaSalle students individually a week, along with running group sessions and conducting consultations and assessments.

“But that’s only our scheduled work,” she said. “We’re lucky to have a space on campus that allows us to be where the students are. There has been a couple of times when we’re in a meeting room, and we get a knock at the door from a student in distress.”

Since the campus opened up after the COVID-19 lockdown, ACHS also began advertising its services on campus.

“We’ve already seen an increase in referrals,” Presutto said. “It’s great to see that they’re reaching out for support and wanting that support from us.”

Measuring success

Presutto had already met a client five times when, during their sixth one-on-one session, the student disclosed something quite personal.

Photo of Nardeen Awadalla

Nardeen Awadalla

“I had already put in 10 hours of work with them, but in the 11th hour, the student shared something vulnerable,” Presutto said. “That reminded me that it takes time to build trust in therapy. Students will open up, and some take longer than others.”

When it comes to measuring success, for Presutto, those moments are a big win.

“Success to me is seeing students taking the small but courageous steps, steps that they’ve never taken before,” she said. “When you have enough of these small steps, the big successes will come.”

With young adults, Presutto said, the interns’ goal is to provide early intervention while also providing students with some basic skills, including learning how to regulate difficult or complex emotions.

Leyba adds that the fact students are returning to their one-on-one or group sessions to share what’s happening in their lives shows that the ACHS and LaSalle partnership is working.

“I have a strong sense of pride for a lot of my clients because they go through so much with school, work, and relationships,” Leyba said. “There are different ways I look at wins, but to be able to point out to a student that they’ve achieved a goal they made. That’s a win. For students to say they want to do better and then do the work, it’s not easy.”

Changing the culture

While most of the interns’ work involves providing therapy, the support that Bhindi and the ACHS team offer extends way beyond those one-on-one or group sessions.

“The range of how or why a student connects with me is everything and anything,” Bhindi said. “There are students who need help with where to go for groceries, how to find a new apartment, or what learning accommodations are available for them.”

Image of LaSalle and ACHSMeanwhile, there are students who are experiencing loneliness, homesickness, depression, and anxiety. Others are experiencing a breakup or the loss of a family member.

“There are different dialogues happening all the time,” Bhindi said.

Among the dialogue that the ACHS team is involved in is creating an environment that encourages mental wellness as part of students’ day-to-day lives.

From journaling and yoga to breathing exercises and mindfulness groups, there’s something for everyone.

“We’re working on running a painting group, which the students really enjoyed the previous year,” Presutto said. “We want to provide activities that give our students the opportunity to connect with one another.”

It’s about changing the culture and increasing wellness on a community level, Awadalla said.

“We’re creating a system where students are learning about mental health, getting self-care tips, getting familiar with the language and strategies that make mental wellness a normal part of the college experience,” Awadalla said.

For Leyba and Presutto, one of their focuses is to remove any stigma related to therapy.

“Students feel like they need to be at a severe point of struggle before reaching out,” Presutto said. “At the end of the day, our message to our students is simple: If you think you’re struggling, that’s reason enough to ask for help.”


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