Opinion: UBC and the AMS maintain class barriers to student mental health care

This year’s AMS/GSS Health and Dental plan covers $1,250 in claims for visits with mental health practitioners -  equal to last year’s coverage and a reduction from the 2021/2022 policy year.

In an interview with The Ubyssey earlier this September, AMS executives said that a now undone reduction to coverage was part of an effort by the AMS to combat increasing costs. Students have previously criticized the limitations of coverage, forcing them to reexamine whether they can access essential care. 

Much of the problem lies in the history and expectations of the AMS’ mental health coverage more broadly. Assuming a rate of $150 per hour for counselling - higher than the unrealistically low rate AMS president Esmé Decker implied of $100 per hour - the current plan covers only eight full hour-long sessions.

Eight sessions can, of course, be helpful to students. Yet, for longer-term problems, this frequency of treatment is not nearly enough. 

In my own experience, I have had counselling appointments weekly or biweekly for periods of months or years, and while it has been incredibly helpful so far, I currently need my regular appointments to continue indefinitely to maintain a functional level of health. 

While the AMS supplement helps me access treatment that has been life-changing, it is still merely a supplement; I do not credit it with enabling my access to care. For this policy year, coverage was reduced to 80 per cent of the cost of weekly appointments, down from full coverage in last year, leaving students in situations like mine to manage a cost in the hundreds or thousands. 

This is a significant amount for anyone, but it is made especially more poignant when students are burdened with tuition and skyrocketing rent costs. Without high incomes or large savings, which is generally not the case among this age demographic, students will often need assistance from family to access the care they need. 

But even if one’s family is supportive of their efforts, the extent to which a family can provide that resource varies based on their socioeconomic status. 

In this way, access to care that can be critical and life-saving is only available to students born into middle to high income brackets. While the supplemental coverage from the AMS plan may give more people access, by not covering long-term treatment, students who are unable to pay for themselves or through their family’s support are still being excluded from health care by the AMS because of economic status.

Ideally, mental health services would be fully covered under British Columbia’s Medical Services Plan or the University of British Columbia as part of its current budgetary priority to support students in areas including mental health. This could take the form of grants from UBC for students paying out of pocket for mental health care, similar to the first-year Student Housing Supplement Grant or the proposed international-student housing bursary on a broader scale. Such changes could be funded by growing the students’ priorities portion of the operating fund, which for all categories totalled $54.9 million for the Vancouver campus. Yet if the university is currently not subsidizing the longer-term care it has not offered, the responsibility falls to the AMS, our student union, to advocate to UBC on our behalf or create a comprehensive and effective program on its own. 

To ensure this need is met without the full support of UBC, the AMS needs to more actively prioritize the health and wellbeing of students, the union’s members, in its budget. While smaller changes such as the one-time “emergency” increase to $1500 of coverage for the 2021/22 policy year are helpful, we as students also need to prevent ourselves from being biased by the paltry numbers we’ve become accustomed to so we can continue to demand that the AMS meet our needs and properly allocate the financial resources we provide when it’s efforts in lobbying the province and UBC fail. It will cost the AMS more, but it is more capable of finding funding for such costs than individuals. And while AMS VP Finance Abhi Mishra argued that there are mental health resources available for UBC students, UBC does not currently provide professional long-term counselling, a critical gap the AMS coverage is intended to fill.

A well-functioning system would allow regular appointments to students regardless of their or their family’s financial situation throughout the year. Whether this takes the form of unlimited coverage or a cap several thousand dollars higher is up to the AMS and its insurance partners. Yet for now, the burden lies on us students to demand the support required to allow everyone, regardless of financial resources, to access the health they deserve and need to best succeed in their studies.

Marie Erikson is a third-year honours philosophy student and was previously a Ubyssey staff writer.

This is an opinion letter. It does not reflect the opinions of The Ubyssey as a whole. You can submit an opinion at ubyssey.ca/pages/submit-an-opinion.