U of O alumna joins tech-based mental health counselling startup, seeks to improve accessibility

Walking into an office for your first, long-awaited mental health counselling appointment can be scary. After University of Ottawa alumna Madeline Smolarz experienced this firsthand while accessing on-campus counselling, she joined Inkblot Therapy in order to improve accessibility of mental health services.

Inkblot Therapy is a new Internet-based counselling service which, according to Smolarz, provides all the same benefits of a counselling office in addition to features like 24-hour appointment scheduling and low commitment required from the patient.

“(It’s) the comfort of being able to jump on, book an appointment, (and) have that appointment a day later without having to leave home if that’s not accessible to you.”

Although Smolarz, who is now the operations manager and digital curator at Inkblot, said that the counselling she received from the University of Ottawa Health Services (UOHS) had a “really positive impact” on her life, she noticed some gaps in the service that needed to be addressed.

“I was able to meet with someone within a couple of weeks, however … the semester ends at the end of April, so that’s essentially when I was told the counselling would be finished, regardless of whether I might need more or not,” she said.

“At that time I was living quite far from my family, didn’t feel comfortable seeking out a professional counsellor and going to their office. I felt much more comfortable on campus.”

However, one notable drawback to Inkblot’s service comes from its $75 price tag, which will book students in for a 50-minute session. While Smolarz said that this charge is necessary to cover the costs of hiring the counsellors and hosting the website, she acknowledges that this may be a barrier to some students who are low on funds.

“(The cost is) just something we’re starting with, and rather than raising the price we’re looking to lower it,” she said. “If you have insurance through yourself or through your parent’s plan, certain insurance providers will help cover this type of counselling.”

Although the startup may not be able to provide access to a psychologist for free, Inkblot does provide quicker access to a counsellor than most free services on the U of O campus.

According to Donald Martin, manager at the Student Academic Success Services’ (SASS) counselling and coaching service, counselling is available only while students are enrolled in courses. What this means is that summer students may be able to access counselling during the warmer months, however, those not enrolled in summer classes would have to seek help elsewhere.

Even if you are planning to take summer courses, the current wait time for an appointment with a counsellor at SASS is four to six weeks, although Martin notes that this wait time usually decreases in the fall term.

Meanwhile, to obtain counselling from the UOHS mental health department, the current wait time is four to six weeks for a 30-minute telephone consultation, and four months for an in-office counselling appointment. This information is not listed on the UOHS website, and was obtained by a phone call to the UOHS mental health department.

By leveraging technology to make mental health counselling more accessible, Smolarz and the team at Inkblot hope to create solutions to these problems for students at the U of O and across Canada.

“It can come in and help fill those gaps, and meet students’ needs that aren’t necessarily being met. People are falling through the cracks, and unfortunately it happens more often than we perhaps think.”