Student protesters gather outside Jacques Frémont's office. Photo: Bridget Coady/The Fulcrum
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Content warning: Suicide 

About a dozen protesters sat outside of University of Ottawa president Jacques Frémont’s office for hours on Wednesday to demand change and better access to mental health services on campus. The protest was organized after the death of the fifth student in 10 months was announced on Monday. 

For Angela Toubis, the fifth email announcing the student death was what inspired her to help organize the Tabaret Hall sit-in.

“We need to do actual physical action,” said the third-year political science and communications student. “We’ve been trying to connect and speak to someone, we’ve been writing emails, we’ve been connecting with professors. We’ve been doing a lot of administration work, but we haven’t been really sitting down and physically going somewhere. So we’re like, ‘OK maybe this will get more attention.’ ”

Toubis is a co-founder of the uOCollective 4 Mental Health, a Facebook group with just under 1,000 members sharing ideas to help tackle the mental health issue on campus. She says the group, launched after the fourth student death of 2019 in December, has been working on coming up with solutions by speaking with psychologists about what can be done to better support students.

Second-year political science student Chelsey-Lynn Rousselle said she was at the protest to voice her concerns as a student with mental health issues, highlighting the wait times she has faced in accessing services on campus.

The death of the student came just days before U of O’s winter reading week. The Canadian Journal of Higher Education conducted research on the effects of reading week on mental health, finding that students who have the break experience fewer stressors but still experienced high levels of stress upon returning to school. One of the factors identified in the study was the number of assignments and midterms falling immediately after the break.

Rousselle said students often don’t get the break they need over reading week for their mental health. 

“You can’t guarantee that all professors are going to let you have a week of a break,” she said. “But also I’m not going to be spending reading week relaxing, I’m going to be spending it angry about this email. I’m worried for myself, I’m worried for my friends and worried for the students on this campus.”

Rousselle said the content and format of the emails notifying students of a death are also harming her mental health.

“I’ve had suicidal thoughts. I know people who have suicidal thoughts and knowing that if something were to happen, that’s how it would be treated makes you upset,” said Rousselle. “It makes me feel really sad for those families because the university isn’t performing adequately.”

Frémont acknowledged that the school is facing a mental health crisis on Tuesday, stating a task force would be assembled to improve campus services and a number of recommendations from a mental health and wellness report will be implemented in the near future.

Frémont said town halls on mental health will be held in the coming months and added that the administration has also hired six new counsellors after students voted to increase mental health funding through the University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) last academic year.

After an hour of students sitting outside of his office, Frémont came out and spoke with organizers Toubis and Laura O’Connor, another co-founder of the uOCollective 4 Mental Health.

Frémont spoke to the students about their concerns as well as what they would like to see change. He also set up another time to meet with the students to further discuss with the collective how they can take part in the mental health task force.

Frémont said student voices on mental health are important and more effective when turning to the government for increased support. He asked students to join him if he were to attend Queen’s Park, and both Toubis and O’Connor agreed. 

Toubis said she agrees that it’s not the sole responsibility of the university to improve mental health service, but she said they play an integral role.

“I definitely don’t think that the university can change this whole mental health epidemic,” said Toubis. “I do think that the university can provide more resources.”

“The sit-in makes more of a statement when you come in person — nothing’s being done as is, so you change your approach,” said Letissia, who asked that her last name not be used.

Letissia said she’s no longer surprised when she receives an email about another student death and added that she’s upset about the way the emails are formatted, describing them as “copied and pasted.”

“I feel like they’re (the university) protecting themselves. It’s a safe statement,” said Letissia. “They’ve used it before and they’re going to continue using it because you distance yourself away from the problem.”

“The U of O as an institution is a place … that really cultivates student’s lifestyles for at least four years,” said O’Connor. “They come here every day and school is their full-time job. A lot of students, including myself, work on campus. This is what sets them up for their future. So in that regard, yes, the U of O has an obligation that goes beyond academics to care for students.”

“People go and they wait months to speak to someone when they’re in crisis situations. People are referred to private psychologists that are hundreds of dollars an hour. People are facing issues with incompetency of care because these professionals are overworked,” said O’Connor, “That is, in my opinion, the role the university has played in a suicide epidemic on campus. There’s no institutional support for student’s mental health.”

Even with the attention of the president’s office, Toubis said the university’s mental health system requires a long-term commitment.

“I definitely don’t think it goes away. Even to this day, I don’t think that the crisis is mental health, I think it’s a crisis of mental health care,” said Toubis. “Saying that the crisis is mental health is putting the blame on the victim.”

Sam Schroeder, advocacy commissioner for the UOSU, said he attended the sit-in to show his personal support as well as the support of the union.

“It’s tragic, it makes me want to start finding solutions,” said Schroeder. “We can get involved on every level.” 

He said one of the ways the UOSU wants to add more mental health support for students is by adding more funding to the union’s Peer Help Centre as well as advocating for the university on a provincial-wide level. 

More to come.

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

On campus…

  • University of Ottawa Health Services (UOHS), 100 Marie-Curie Private
    • Offers counselling, psychiatric services, individual, couple or family therapy, access to psycho-educational groups and referrals to specialists off-campus
  • Student Academic Success Service (SASS), 100 Marie-Curie Private
    • Offers individual counselling, peer-counselling, workshops, online therapy and group counselling using new stepped model; referrals
  • Faculty mentoring centres (locations differ by faculty)
    • Specialized mentoring services catered to the needs of students in each faculty

Off campus…

Warning signs of suicide include:

Talking about wanting to die

Looking for a way to kill oneself

Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose

Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain

Talking about being a burden to others

Increasing use of alcohol or drugs

Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly

Sleeping too little or too much

Withdrawing or feeling isolated

Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge

Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

Editor’s Note (Feb. 12, 7:55 p.m.): This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Angela Toubis’s last name.