Student Services Team Addresses Fentanyl Crisis, Restructuring of Mental Health and Counselling

Photo: Evelyn Dom

On September 14, Martine Gauthier, the Executive Director of Student Services, invited campus media and representatives from various SSMU services to sit down with her in conversation. Citing the need for open consultation and communication, and referencing the fact that no such forum had ever occurred before, Ms. Gauthier informed students that this year “[Student Services] wants to do things differently…[they] want to work with [students] differently.”

The topics at hand were the restructuring of McGill’s Mental Health and Counselling Services, changes to the operations of the Office for Students with Disabilities, and the fentanyl crisis.

The conversation centered around the inaccessibility of student services as a whole, and was based on feedback that the department received by petition, through campus media, and by data collection last year. Ms. Gauthier stated the necessity of refocusing services to better support McGill’s “systemically and historically underserved populations.”

Ms. Gauthier discussed the “harmonization” of Mental Health and Counselling Services into one office that now includes twelve psychiatrists. Gauthier and the Mental Health and Counselling staff are confident that this integration will reduce bottlenecks and better serve students. Teri Phillips, Director of the Office for Students with Disabilities, also presented on structural changes and new programs, including the creation of an interest free loan program to make expensive educational testing more accessible for students. Then, Dr. Hashana Perera, Director of Health Services, took the floor to discuss the fentanyl crisis.

McGill Health Services nurses are literally standing on guard.

Dr. Perera spoke extensively about the prevalence of fentanyl in a wide variety of drugs. She explained that the public health crisis has slowly crept eastward from Western Canada, and that fentanyl has come to be used as a filler in nearly all recreational drugs. In Dr. Perera’s words, “[McGill Health Services] saw it coming and has tried to prepare for it…unfortunately Quebec hasn’t quite caught up.” Medical professionals at the McGill clinic have been trained extensively in how to identify and treat a fentanyl ‘overdose,’ which Perera described as a misnomer, stating that any encounter with fentanyl is a poisoning.

To Perera and her staff’s disappointment, the Quebec government has prohibited them from training others on campus in the same vein. Additionally, regulation has forbid naloxone, a reversal agent that acts in a matter of minutes, from being dispensed by anyone other than doctors, nurses, and pharmacists (from whom it can be picked up for free).

While naloxone is an effective antidote, Perera believes that prevention will be a far more successful tactic in battling the fentanyl crisis. However, several regulatory roadblocks stand in her way. McGill Health Services nurses “are literally standing on guard waiting to launch a training program” for Floor Fellows, M-SERT, Walksafe, and other individuals who take a harm-reduction approach on campus, but have been unable to do so because of stipulations in Quebec law.

Quantities of fentanyl as small as a few grains of salt can kill.

Drug testing kits also came up in conversation. According to Dr. Perera, testing kits are not small “science kits” that can be used at home and “change colour when fentanyl is detected,” contrary to popular belief. They require large pieces of equipment and advanced training to operate, and can only test on quantities of drugs far greater than students are likely to possess.

Perera stressed repeatedly that quantities of fentanyl “as small as a few grains of salt can kill.” She is “petrified” of the substance, and reiterated that the moment policy changes and naloxone becomes more widely accessible in Quebec, she and her staff will be on the front lines, engaging with members of the McGill community and training them in prevention, identification, and treatment of a fentanyl poisoning. Until then, in the event of a poisoning, students should be reminded that they can find naloxone at McGill Health Services, or at any pharmacy.

Ms. Gauthier began the conversation by reflecting on the collaborative nature of Student Services. She expressed that while various offices tackle discrete components of students’ health, overall wellbeing is the force that drives them. The forum was organized through this lens, with the ultimate goal of working more closely with students to provide better and more accessible services and care.

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