Mind your mind: What you need to know about accessing the mental health system

I see it everywhere.

UBC Confessions is filled with anonymous posts and confessions from students who are desperately looking for help regarding their mental health. UBC Reddit threads contain hundreds of comments and experiences that speak to an incredible amount of suffering. Scrolling down my computer screen, reading them, I can’t help but detect cries for help. But I can also see snippets of hope here and there, and I know that behind these stories, there are people who are meant to thrive and who are willing to grow and change.

It saddens me to know that so many of my peers are suffering in silence. It angers me when I encounter students who aren’t able to receive the help they so desperately need and deserve. It breaks my heart when I meet friends who have tried to reach out for support and have been met with unkind or negative responses.

My goal is to share my own experience accessing the mental health system, because I used to be one of them. The system may be broken and underfunded, but there are still people out there who care.

I know that a lot of people are getting increasingly frustrated when it comes to accessing mental health services and care. It’s not my responsibility to apologize on behalf of the system. But I can relate to the feelings of hopelessness and frustration that may arise when you’ve spent months building the courage to walk into Counselling Services, only to be told that they’re fully booked for the next two months. I’ve been there.

I know that our system is flawed and imperfect. I know that the wait time to access Student Health Psychiatry is long — too long. I know that counselling services in general, all over the province, have month-long waitlists and expensive fees.

But I also know that there are people out there who are doing the very best they can to help those of us facing mental health challenges. Over the years, I’ve met with shitty GPs, counsellors and psychiatrists. I’ve left appointments wanting to cry because I felt like no one understood me and I’ve felt discouraged when professionals didn’t seem to take me seriously.

However, I have also met with wonderful and caring professionals, who have helped me tremendously in my journey towards both mental and physical wellness. I promise you, those kinds of people exist. There are hidden gems everywhere.

So the first lesson here is not to judge the entire system based on one interaction with one professional. When you are trying to access care, you have to keep in mind that finding the right professional is like entering a relationship. If you don’t get along with the first doctor you see, don’t give up — I guarantee you that there is someone out there who is a “better fit” for your needs.

Just like dating, you have to “click” with the person and if you’re unsure about your relationship with that professional, ask yourself, “Does this person understand and respect me? Do I feel heard, safe and cared for?” If the answer is no, it might be time to search for another doctor, counsellor, etc.

There are tons of resources out there — you just have to find them.

UBC Mental Health Network
UBC Mental Health Network

Before becoming part of the UBC mental health community and taking on more of an active role as a peer facilitator, I thought that mental health resources were non-existent on campus. Yes, I acknowledge that mental health resources are lacking all over the country. But I have to say that compared to other universities, UBC is quite lucky when it comes to mental health services aimed at students.

There are resources out there — sometimes, you just have to dig deep to find them. Some people might not even be aware of these resources, which is why it can feel like there’s no support out there.

For example, UBC has many peer support groups on campus (Kaleidoscope, S.H.A.R.E., VICE) as well as organizations like SpeakEasy, SASC and the Wellness Centre. If you’re looking for counselling services or psychiatric care, you can explore options beyond what UBC has to offer.

There are lots of psychotherapy clinics in Vancouver that offer sliding scale rates and there are free programs/support groups that are run through the community. My point is that even if one resource doesn’t work out, there will always be another one to try.

I had to learn this the hard way, but the truth is that sometimes you have to shout to be heard. What I mean by that is sometimes, mental health professionals can accidentally trivialize your struggles or downplay the amount of suffering you’re feeling.

At times, it may feel like they won’t give you an accurate level of care unless you’re in imminent danger. The reality is that mental health professionals have to prioritize those in crisis. But even if you’re not a danger to yourself or others, that doesn’t mean that you aren’t worthy of help or that your struggles aren’t valid. Because let me assure you that they are. Your concerns, whether they are big or small, matter.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past few years navigating this system, it’s that advocating for yourself is an act of bravery and the best gift you can give yourself.

Sometimes, in order to get help, you will have to shout to be heard. Keep shouting until someone hears you. Advocating for yourself can be hard — it takes a lot of work and it can be exhausting, especially if you’re already struggling. But it’s important to keep reaching out, even if all you want to do is give up. Sometimes, you’ll find support in unexpected places.

In emergency cases, it is perfectly acceptable to call 911 or go to the hospital (for more emergency services, check out the MHN resource sheet).

The Canadian Mental Health Association and BC211.ca websites are good resources worth checking out.

I wholeheartedly believe that most mental health professionals are doing the very best they can within our system. I know that this hasn’t been the case with everyone, but speaking from personal experience, I’ve received excellent care from mental health services at UBC. This gives me hope.

Facing a mental health challenge on top of navigating the common stresses of young adulthood can be daunting. But you are more resilient than you think.

The authors of this column are not mental health professionals. If you need additional support, please contact Student Health Services, Sexual Assault Support Centre and/or the Wellness Centre. In case of an emergency, call 911.