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While student senator Sam Yee believes the U of O is moving in a positive direction, she believes that there is still a long way to go. Photo: Georgiana Ghitau/Fulcrum
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Following the 2019 mental health crisis, the annual reports function to track the University’s progress in terms of improving support and services on campus 

The University of Ottawa’s Annual Progress Report on Mental Health and Wellness was presented by university advisor on health and wellness Elizabeth Kristjansson at last week’s University Senate meeting. 

The report is a part of the mandate that began with the President’s Advisory Committee on Mental Health and Wellness in 2020, which was charged with producing the original report following a string of student deaths on the University of Ottawa campus. The progress report aimed to update students, staff, and faculty on the changes that have been made in the last year.

“Overall, I personally can appreciate a lot of what’s been done so far, and this report does clearly outline next steps to be taken so I’m definitely feeling like we’re moving in a positive direction,” wrote Sam Yee, in an email to the Fulcrum. 

Students respond to the progress report

Yee is the student senator who represents undergraduate students in the faculty of science. She notes that her elder peers in the Senate testify to the progress that has been made over the last decade, but the turbulence of the more immediate past colours her understanding of mental health and wellbeing on this campus —  as well as the University’s efforts to address it.

“I was here at [the University of Ottawa] during the time when we had a number of student suicides within the span of a single year, and also the COVID-19 pandemic which worsened mental health for many students. I can say that I think a lot of this progress has been more reactionary and less proactive. [But] that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my view, because we have to start somewhere.” 

It was the crisis in 2019 that prompted Dr. Elizabeth Kristjansson to take on a role in the University’s effort to improve mental health and wellbeing on campus.

“I became passionate about student mental health during the terrible year of 2019 when we lost several students,” wrote Kristjansson in a statement to the Fulcrum. “Early in 2020, a student came to me to talk about his struggles, and that spurred me to become involved.”

Now the university advisor on mental health and wellness, Kristjansson is in charge of tracking progress on the implementation of health initiatives helping to identify and fill the gaps that still exist.

The progress report included specific updates regarding each of the twelve recommendations that were included in the original document. Of these, the objectives that remain the least developed include the expansion of training for professors and staff, the expansion of support within individual faculties, and the establishment of a multidisciplinary mental health and wellness research cluster. 

One of the recommendations the report shows has undergone the least progress is the support for student-led initiatives which seek to promote mental health and wellness. 

“We already have many things in place to help students that are student-run, I think it’s a matter of the University knowing about them and agreeing to help support them financially,” wrote Yee. 

She lists Compass (formerly Wellness World) and peer support groups as two such initiatives looking for more support from the University. She also notes that services indirectly related to mental health, such as the Food Bank and Free Store, would also benefit from more funding and attention.

In addition to the aspects identified in the progress report, Yee thinks that increasing communication between students, faculty, and the Committee itself is a crucial next step.

“I asked Dr. Kristjansson what students can do and she said to just reach out to the Committee. Her response made it seem like the Committee is very open to more collaboration with students, there just haven’t been many steps taken to really have consistent and ongoing dialogue; it seems more like [an attitude of] ‘when you have something to say, you have to come find us to tell us,’” wrote Yee. 

Kristjansson agrees that this is an area that still needs significant attention.

“I think that we need better communication between all of us; especially on mental health and wellness. Communication is indeed getting better but some students and employees still aren’t aware of how to access needed resources and how much we all are doing to improve mental health,” wrote Kristjansson.

 “I do think that we need to better connect with students who have developed initiatives and who have new ideas.”

Future funding 

Yee also raises concerns about the sustainability of the program’s funding. Kristjansson’s role includes helping find funding for student-centred mental health initiatives. So far, she has been successful in co-writing several grants to support “priority mental health work.” She also works with Student Affairs and the Development Office to “engage donors for key projects.” 

These efforts have so far resulted in the funding used to hire two new counsellors and add evening hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, resulting in 580 additional appointments annually. Yee worries, however, that the report’s indications for future funding are overly vague. She points out that what funding is overviewed in the report mainly comes through short-term or one-time sources.

“The report has a whole section dedicated to pointing out what grants we’ve received, which are mostly one-time grants. There isn’t much mention of how these initiatives are being funded other than through donations or one-time grants. That isn’t to say the University isn’t planning to consistently fork out money from elsewhere in their budget towards mental health, but from this report, we just don’t know this,” wrote Yee.

The report does, however, contain indications that the search for a sustainable long-term funding model is underway. 

Kristjansson writes in the report that she intends to ensure the initiatives “receive adequate funding within existing budget structures.” She continues: “Ongoing financial support and appropriate prevention and support structures for mental health and wellness are essential. The University cannot achieve its goals of excellence if it does not invest in the fundamental wellness of its entire community.”

Working with controversy

While the University community might be united in terms of their desire to improve mental health and wellbeing on campus, several issues have generated debate amongst students, staff, and faculty.

During 2019’s mental health crisis, nearly identical emails were sent out to the student body to notify them of every student death. The President Advisory Committee Report found that these communications were described as triggering for some people.

“Above all, we don’t want to do harm,” wrote Kristjansson. “For now, we are going to follow their recommendation and communicate only with those sectors where the member was known.”

A working group on suicide prevention and protocols continues to consider this issue.

Students have also argued that professors, as the University’s front line, should be better equipped to deal with issues of mental health and wellness. Some professors, however, have opposed expectations that they intervene with students in crisis. 

“This is indeed a conundrum,” wrote Kristjansson. “Professors often are already over-loaded and feel ill-equipped to help. But professors really care about their student’s welfare. It is important to note that no one expects professors to be counsellors, but we know that some students will come to them with problems, and we have developed resources to help them in referring students in need.” 

The “Caring uOttawa” guide has been developed as a resource for professors and front-facing staff in order to inform professors about resources and protocol in response.

Moving in the right direction

Students at the U of O have been vocal about the need for counsellors who better reflect the University’s diverse student body and their needs. Kristjansson notes that while all counsellors are trained in and empathetic to these needs, the U of O has hired two racialized counsellors. 

“The two new racialized counsellors are important because some students feel more comfortable with someone who may have similar lived experiences to them,” writes Kristjansson. She adds that she hopes their addition “shows that uOttawa cares about the cultural safety of its members and has taken positive action towards ensuring that safety.” 

Kristjansson also hopes that the launch of the new Integrated Student Health and Wellness Centre, opening in May, will prove to be an improvement to student health services. The centre will feature psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychological counsellors in addition to primary care physicians and nurses.

“The fact that all of these specialists will be working closely together with streamlined referral systems will help to ensure more timely access to the appropriate mental health specialists.  It might also identify some problems that have gone unrecognized,” writes Kristjansson. 

The launch of the new centre comes after the development and implementation of the case management model, which utilizes six student support workers and a manager to oversee more complex student cases. The model has dealt with 376 referrals since May 2021. 

But the biggest success, in Kristjansson’s eyes, has been raising awareness. 

“The recommendations are well thought out,” she wrote. “I think that they are also an indication that the University takes mental health and wellness very seriously.”

Yee added that while she doesn’t think all the areas requiring attention have received it yet, “from Dr. Kristjansson’s answers to our questions at the Senate meeting and the next steps outlined in this report, I think they will be addressed in the near future.”

Kristjansson adds that students can continue to access health-related services through ByWard Health Services at 100 Marie-Curie until April 30th, after which time the new Student Health and Wellness Centre will be operational at Minto. She also encourages students to stop by the Wellness Lounge in UCU 205, opening Jan. 31.

A non-comprehensive list of local mental health resources appears below…

On campus…

Off campus…