Cut with care

Faced with a $2.8 million budget shortfall, the College of New Caledonia and its new president, Henry Reiser, are faced with some excruciating decisons to cut staff, programs and services to balance the books.

One of those services on the chopping block for April's board of governors meeting is some of the college's counselling services.

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The college needs to proceed carefully here and, if cuts are really necessary, they need to be done carefully and with great deliberation. In others, a scalpel, not an axe, should be the instrument of choice, and only if there is simply no other alternative.

In early 2000, UNBC quickly beefed up its counselling department after Anna Sorkomova, a 23-year-old Russian exchange student, who disappeared that December, was found hanging in the woods not far from the main parking lot. She had been due to make a court appearance two days after she was last seen. She had been charged with theft under $5,000 for minor shoplifting. As a result, she had been taken to the local Immigration Canada office and her passport had been seized.

"Her fear, shame and precipitating sense of hopelessness may have been contributing factors in her decision to take her own life," wrote coroner Beth Larcombe in a 20-page report after an inquest was held into Sorkomova's death.

By the time Larcombe published her report calling for more staff and better contact with foreign students, UNBC had already added a full-time counsellor.

Student access to classes and programs is important but student access to counselling can be a life-or-death matter.

In a story last January, The Citizen reported that, according to the 2013 National College Health Assessment, 89 per cent of students surveyed said they felt overwhelmed and 57 per cent said they felt overwhelmingly anxious.

Furthermore, 38 per cent said they felt so depressed they had trouble functioning and nearly 10 per cent had considered suicide.

Programs like CNC's Back On Track program were designed specifically to prevents tragedies like the death of Sorkomova before they happened, with instructors alerting counsellors about signs of depression or other mental health issues seen in students.

Cuts to the college's counselling services could leave the remaining staff unable to respond fast enough when instructors raise the red flag.

CNC students in need likely won't get timely assistance from UNBC counsellors, either. The Community Care Centre funded by the university already has a two- to four-month waiting list and staff there are also worried about future funding.

Worried about future funding is the everyday experience for the vast majority of post-secondary students, along with the demands of classes, midterms, labs, term papers, projects and finals, not to mention labour disruptions, school program cuts and layoffs to faculty and staff.

Now factor in problems seen across all campuses to varying degrees, such as binge drinking, drugs, harassment, sexual assault, housing, poverty and hunger.

Student life is no party for some.

That's where counsellors come in, to help some students survive their post-secondary experience, giving them the skills to cope and persevere.

Hopefully, Reiser, his team and the CNC board of governors can find another way to find savings that doesn't involve increasing the risk for tragedy among a small but vulnerable group of students.

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