Susan Dempsey

For four years, Susan Dempsey, a counsellor at the University of Victoria, worked with an undergraduate student with serious anxiety, seeing her every three to four weeks over the course of her education. The stress of being away from home for the first time amplified the student’s difficulties, in addition to the pressure of adapting to post-secondary expectations and transitioning into adulthood.

“The role I provided was one of compassionate listener,” Dempsey recalls. “I was a consistent presence in the midst of what could have been debilitating mental health and adaptation challenges.

Years after the student graduated, Dempsey ran into her and learned she was doing well. It was heartening. “It’s interesting to follow someone through their whole degree. I felt like I watched her mature and get better and better able to handle life.”

Some students need fleeting support from UVic’s Counselling Services department, which Dempsey has been part of since 2005. One or two sessions during a time of crisis—exams or a breakup—do the trick. Others benefit from regular visits to help manage persistent issues caused by trauma, a mental health issue or a difficult life challenge.

Dempsey explains: “Sometimes students are coming to counselling because they were in counselling before and it was helpful; sometimes they’re here because it’s gotten worse. Sometimes it’s the stress of how to manage everything in their lives, or it’s homesickness and how to cope with change and transition. And,” she adds, “sometimes it’s very serious mental illness.”

The variety of work is what Dempsey loves about her role.

After completing her undergraduate degree in psychology at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, and her Masters In Counselling Psychology at UVic, Dempsey spent her early career working with victims of trauma at the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre, the Bridges for Women Society and the Mary Manning Centre, also known as Victoria Child Abuse and Prevention Counselling.

“I felt like I was doing really important work in those early years. It felt to me like I was doing something around changing the world,” she remembers.

What she says about working with university students:  “I love that place in your early 20s that’s full of possibilities,” she explains. “The students are starting to think for themselves, questioning things they’ve learned, trying to sort out what are their values and what are their parents’ values. I like the combination of self-exploration and moving forward and making real change in one’s life.”

Dempsey and her colleagues work with students individually as well as in groups, holding sessions for 8 to 16 students on topics such as mindfulness skills for stress and anxiety, building social confidence, coping with grief, sexualized violence support for women and anxiety management. Counselling services are free except for career counselling, which has a nominal fee for a personality or career assessment.

Dempsey also supervises graduate students doing their counselling practicums at UVic, some from the program she once attended. “I really like that teaching piece, helping new counsellors develop their skills,” Dempsey says, remembering how much she admired those she worked with when she was a student.

A lifelong learner, Dempsey is a person who loves to try new things and develop her interests. She joined UVic’s PEA chapter executive early in her tenure and has stayed involved ever since. She is a local representative for the UVic chapter as well as the second vice-chair of the Association executive.

“Learning about the labour movement and understanding how things work politically are interesting. It really fits with my values around unions and social change and being agents of social change,” she says.

She also loves the opportunity to meet people in her chapter and around the province. “PEA is such a diverse union. I get to talk to foresters, lawyers, people who work in libraries. It’s really interesting.”

Outside of work, Dempsey pursues tai chi (she has practised for more than 40 years) and plays accordion in a local klezmer band. She is a perpetual student of life, welcoming any chance she can to learn something new, change her perspective or develop insight into people.

“I’ve always been really interested in people and what makes them tick,” she says. “I do a lot of reading of novels and going to plays. I’m interested in how people change, and how people make change in their lives.”

This quality of curiosity benefits her work at UVic, particularly as the counselling department has grown busier over the years.

She’s developed a metaphor for this phenomenon: “I call it the Starbucks of counselling,” she explains with a laugh. “You know when a Starbucks opens across from another coffee shop, and you think, where are the customers going to come from? And then both places are full? That’s what it’s like here. We could probably have 10 more counsellors and we’d still be as busy.”

Dempsey says the last statistics she saw showed Counselling Services sees about 18 per cent of the UVic student population.

“I don’t know if the stats show more these days, but it feels like more,” she says. The seriousness of students’ concerns has also increased, she adds, noting that, in recent years, anxiety has become the primary reason students seek counselling, a trend observed in other academic institutions in North America.

When you’re embroiled deeply in the mental health and well-being of others, self-care is an important part of the job.

Dempsey and her nine colleagues meet weekly to discuss cases and support each other through the difficult ones. Sometimes, the talking happens over lunch while walking around Ring Road and taking in the beautiful setting; other times, it’s a casual check-in at someone’s desk.

She’s also a long-term practitioner of Hakomi, a kind of mindfulness-based psychotherapy, which has the dual benefit of helping her as well as the students she works with.

A few years ago, Dempsey was instrumental in initiating a staff retreat, which has since become a yearly tradition and is part of the counsellors’ self-care regime.

Ultimately, Dempsey’s love of her work is all about people, the people she helps every day and the people she works with.

“We have an amazing team,” Dempsey says of her colleagues. “We have a lot of respect for each other. We all work differently, but we share a lot of the same values and dedication to the work. I feel so lucky to work with these people.”