Ryan Bilanski, the only counsellor in residence at the University of Saskatchewan, meets with nearly 100 students a month. He said he spoke to 91 in September.
The trick, Bilanski said, is getting students to feel comfortable.
“Usually the first question I ask is ‘do you want a cup of coffee?’ I just want to make someone feel at home when they come here,” he said.
It’s his job to help students adapt to life in university or with mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
“Sometimes walking through the door is the hardest part. Someone might say, ‘I walked past your office for two months before I came in and now I kind want to dive into this,’” he said.
“It may be just the fact that they realized it’s an issue they can’t wrestle with on their own anymore.”
Bilanski said the transition of someone “(18-years-old) moving out of a rural community to university life for the first time, or someone in their PhD who is moving across the world” can be jarring.
“They don’t get to go home to an apartment after, or to a family. They’re going to be a university studying and then sleep at the university… it’s really a culture inside of a culture and can become a bit more stressful.”
Bilanski’s duties also involve urgent care, for students who are at risk of self-harm.
The counsellor in residence position was created at the start of the 2018 academic year to provide closer support to the students.
“We created Ryan’s position to make sure we were giving as much support as we could to our residents,” said Andrés Barrera, a Student Life Coordinator.
“Especially with such a big campus, there’s a gap in between our service and how we support students.”
“The counsellor in residence program really is about supporting students in achieving academic and personal success,” said Tracy Spencer, the student affairs and outreach manager.
It was created as the amount of university and college students experiencing mental health — or at least reporting their struggles with mental health — is increasing.
According to the Council of Ontario Universities, the number of students on college and university campuses in Ontario with identified mental health conditions “more than doubled” between 2012 and 2017.
And in a 2019 survey of Canadian universities, almost 80 per cent of students said they felt “very sad,” nearly 70 per cent said they felt “overwhelming anxiety” and more than 50 per cent said they “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function” within the past year.
“I don’t see that as a negative at all,” he said when asked about the figures.
Bilanski is limited to 10 sessions with students, at which point he can refer them to further counselling through another branch of the university. He said he often sees two new patients a day.
He said one of his goals, besides helping students manage, is to teach them that counselling can be helpful.
“That’s my biggest thing, that this is normal and that they can come back whenever they want and make sure that they are seen and heard and it’s a safe place.”