UWaterloo creates advisory committee on mental health in wake of student suicides

The University of Waterloo (U of W) is establishing an advisory committee on mental health, according to a Mar. 27 press release from Feridun Hamdullahpur, president of U of W.

The creation of the committee came as a response to a widespread call for improvement to U of W’s mental health services after a student died by suicide on Mar. 20, and an earlier suicide in January.

The committee will be responsible for “guiding a listening process that will seek to gain further input from our local community, other institutions and external experts,” the release said.

Matthew Grant, director of media relations at U of W, said the committee will “allow people to bring forward ideas, comments and concerns that will be collected, and then recommendations will be made.”

An online petition calling for U of W to improve mental health services caught the attention of media and university administration after garnering 14,999 signatures.

Nicole St. Clair, a second-year political science student at U of W, said she started the petition after she heard about the Mar. 20 suicide, and she has been involved in the establishment of the committee.

“I told them that we know what’s best for us, so it’s really important to engage us in conversation and ask us what we think would work because we kind of know how we need to be helped,” she said. “I’m really pleased that the committee’s going to be starting up and getting some feedback and hopefully some solutions will be coming about soon.”

St. Clair added she heard from fellow students and petition supporters that wait times for counselling services at U of W often take weeks, even months. She also said she hopes peer support services could also be improved.

There have also been other initiatives by U of W students on raising awareness about mental health, such as the Mental Health Project, a research investigation into mental health issues and solutions at U of W.

Simon Daley and Emma McKay, U of W masters students and research coordinators for the Mental Health Project, said they do not feel hopeful about the committee.

We feel that the university’s response to the events of the last few weeks have been more concerned with protecting their reputation than with actually undertaking meaningful changes that will benefit students,” McKay said. 

The other concern we have is we have made efforts to provide them with a student perspective, and they have been exceedingly unreceptive to speaking with us,” Daley said.

McKay and Daley said their group will be conducting their own research into U of W student mental health and the nature of sources available on campus. They plan on releasing a report of their findings with recommendations to the university in 2018.

Earlier this school year, the Ontario University and College Health Association (OUCHA) published the results of a survey conducted by the association to students at 41 schools across Canada. The survey found that 65 per cent of Ontario students felt overwhelming anxiety in the previous year.

Tayyab Rashid, a psychologist and University of Toronto researcher, said universities have not kept up with the concerns of a “rapidly changing demographic of young adults,” which is a factor in an increase in mental health problems of students.

He said universities do not have sophisticated enough services to properly assess students’ mental health, which can be extremely nuanced.

“Once they don’t understand, that prevents them from responding appropriately,” Rashid said.

The most serious occurrences of mental health problems fall within the age category of 15-24, according to Rashid. He added there needs to be more advanced, thorough training of university mental health service workers.

“[Universities] make up these committees, which are often made as a result of some unfortunate tragedy,” Rashid said, “and because most of the time they don’t understand the issue, they do band-aid, short term measures.

He added student mental health services don’t receive a lot of funding in general.

“It’s the university’s priorities [as to] where they put their resources,” he said.

The University of Guelph (U of G), which lost four students to suicide this school year, has a Student Mental Health and Wellness Advisory Committee made up of staff, faculty, and student representatives.

U of G’s committee was founded in 2014 to address gaps in the school’s programming for mental health and to create the Student Mental Health Framework, which was updated in April 2016, according to The Ontarion, U of G’s student newspaper.

Carleton University recently updated its mental health framework this past October after a year of collaboration between student-led campus mental health groups and school administration—before then, the framework had not been updated since 2009 and had not been created with student collaboration.

U of W’s mental health committee will release two updates before giving a final report of its findings in fall 2017.

– Photo by Trevor Swann