If the library is open late for exam season, why on earth can’t SASS do the same? Photo: Parker Townes.
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SASS should have overnight emergency hours, especially during exam season

Last week, finding myself in a mental health crisis, I landed in the emergency room at the Ottawa Civic Hospital.

I had to wait 15 hours to see a psychiatrist, from 9:30 p.m. until well into the next day, and although the triage nurse said she would love to have me stay in psychiatric emergency, their four beds were full for that night. That was the night I learned what it’s like to try to sleep in a chair for more than half a day, and I definitely don’t recommend it.

But I was lucky to even have a chair that night in the crowded emergency room.

For anyone who has never had a mental health crisis while waiting in ER, I have to make it abundantly clear to you that I can’t think of a worse place to be while in that state of mind. Bright fluorescent lights, loud voices, constant movements, and others in distress, all in close proximity, is anxiety-inducing at best.

I ended up in a makeshift room with two chairs and a table after my symptoms became so bad that others in the ER questioned why the triage nurse wasn’t doing more to help. I don’t blame the nurses, psychiatrists, or anyone else at the Civic though.

Simply put, the system is overloaded. There are only four beds in psychiatric emergency, and if anyone is held there on Form 1, or involuntarily, they’re using the room for up to 72 hours. Not to mention that emergency staff is reduced overnight. While there are usually two or three psychiatrists working in emergency during the day, there’s only one available to see patients overnight.

And my experience isn’t a one-off. I’ve heard stories from many others to a similar tune — the crowded and stressful ER, the long wait for the few psychiatrists, the makeshift rooms to compensate for a full psych emerge.

Shortcomings in psychiatric care aren’t new, as the Coalition of Ontario Psychiatrists released a report in late summer 2018 that flagged a shortage of psychiatrists in Ontario that is expected to worsen by 2030. Around the same time, the president of the Ontario Psychiatric Association said that Ottawa needs about 25 more psychiatrists to meet demand.

Taken together, there’s a good chance your stay at the ER for an overnight mental health emergency will look very similar to mine.

Especially given the extreme stressor of exam season, this scenario begs the question — why isn’t the Student Academic Success Service (SASS) an option for mental health crisis support overnight?

The addition of a walk-in counselling service this year was long overdue. But mental health services will remain inadequate so long as they fail to take into account the realities of crises and severe episodes. While SASS can be helpful in daytime hours, people in either of these situations cannot wait until morning to get support.

If the library is open late for exam season, why on earth can’t SASS do the same?

Some people in crisis don’t feel comfortable going to ER or don’t want to deal with the aforementioned hell that is the waiting room. SASS’ decidedly less chaotic environment would be a welcome switch.

Newcomers to Ottawa would also be helped immensely by this, as figuring out where your shoes are can be difficult when in crisis — never mind figuring out how to get to the hospital.

But wait, you might say, are SASS counsellors even qualified to deal with a crisis situation?

To this I say, an intervention from SASS cannot hurt, and is a much better option than having a student lost or severely harmed because they didn’t get the help they needed when they needed it. Not to mention that the University of Ottawa Health Services (UOHS) already offers psychiatry services in the daytime — why not hire one of these doctors for crisis cases overnight at the SASS walk-in while UOHS is closed for the day?

People are falling through the cracks far too often — at the University of Toronto, Western University, University of Waterloo, Concordia University, University of Guelph, Carleton University, and right here at the University of Ottawa, to name just a few instances.

In an overwhelmed healthcare system and at a time of intense pressure in the academic year, our campus mental health services should have an expanded availability to correspond to the potential increase in students experiencing a crisis.

Overnight hours would not be a silver bullet, but if one student gets the support they need to decide life is still worth a shot the expenses required will be more than justified.