McGill, News

Transition period in McGill’s Counselling and Mental Health Services

In December 2016, Dr. Nancy Low was suspended from her position as Clinical Director of McGill’s Counselling and Mental Health Services (MCMHS).

The exact circumstances of Dr. Low’s suspension cannot be provided as both her office and Douglas Sweet, director of Internal Communications at McGill, said that they are unable to publically comment in any way about personnel matters.

Dr. Low’s suspension follows recent modifications that have been made to MCMHS since the beginning of the Fall 2016 semester, namely the harmonization of the two services into one administrative unit and the new definition of emergency appointments. These changes occurred after feedback and reports including the Student Services’ Cyclical Review, according to the Office of the Executive Director of Student Services.

When asked about the reason for Dr. Low’s suspension, a team from the office of the Executive Director of Student Services stated, “Dr. Nancy Low is on administrative leave. The University cannot comment on HR matters to protect the privacy of all parties concerned.” Calls to Dr. Low’s office were not returned.

Associate Clinical Director Dr. Giuseppe Alfonsi has assumed Dr. Low’s responsibilities for the moment, according to the Office of the Executive Director of Student Services.

The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Vice-President (VP) University Affairs Erin Sobat said he was disappointed after hearing of Dr. Low’s suspension.

“We’re concerned that this seems like not a very healthy management move from higher up,” Sobat said.

Sobat said that SSMU has had a positive experience when collaborating with Dr. Low in the past. According to Sobat, Dr. Low voiced the worries of staff and students regarding the new stepped-care model.

“We have had very positive working relationships with Dr. Low,” Sobat said. “I think that she has been […advocating] for concerns with the transition to the stepped-care model […] coming from staff within Student Services that were not necessarily being heard or are still not being heard.”

The stepped-care model implemented in Fall 2016 consists in a change of procedure in the way patients are taken in. Instead of students choosing to visit Mental Health Services or Counselling Services, new patients are evaluated at one point of entry and are directed to the correct service.

“[The model] is moving away from not just prioritizing one-on-one psychotherapy, and that is a shift that is grounded in research showing there are other really effective tools out there [that are] more preventative and upstream,” Sobat said.

According to Dr. Alfonsi and the Director of the McGill Counselling Service Dr. Vera Romano, students who have used MCMHS feel the new structure is less confusing than the previous.

“Many students who have experienced the old system have expressed relief that there are less hoops to jump through and that they can get access to the resources offered by both units through a single process,” Dr. Alfonsi and Dr. Romano said.

Feedback from MCMHS staff, according to Dr. Alfonsi and Dr. Romano, mainly addresses emergency appointments and the difficulty of providing services while at the same time implementing important structural modifications.

“The major challenge for staff is coping with systemic changes when our units cannot close shop for a semester to ‘renovate processes,’” said Dr. Alfonsi and Dr. Romano. “The main pain point that continues to be expressed is priority appointments, which we have started to address.”

Sobat said that he believes Dr. Low’s suspension will impede the process of adapting to the new stepped-care model.

“We think it’s really only going to be successful if the staff feel that they are a part of these decisions and a part of these changes that are on board,” Sobat said.

Sobat also said that SSMU would prefer that students and staff be more included in the decision-making process of major changes within the student services system.

“We’d really encourage the administration to adopt a collaborative approach when it goes forward with these big structural changes,” Sobat said. “[The administration’s approach should] not only consult students, but also really involve their staff in those discussions.”

Students have complained about the new system’s lack of clarity, according to Sobat.

“There are […] continued concerns about the communication of the changes in Counselling and Mental Health Services,” Sobat said. “[MCMHS] keep saying they are going to launch a new website, that they’re going to have a communications plan, and that’s been very delayed.”

Also on MCMHS’ agenda for the Winter term is taking into account student feedback and the improvement of their services based on the new approach, according to Senior Director of Student Services Martine Gauthier.

“We are about to launch an application form for students to join our Student User Consultation Group to help inform all our Wellness initiatives, including the harmonization of Counselling and Mental Health Services,” Gauthier said.

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