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University president Jacques Frémont. Photo: Aaron Hemens/The Fulcrum

University set to hold town hall this month, looking to partner with local hospitals

Content warning: Suicide

University of Ottawa president Jacques Frémont acknowledged on Tuesday that the school is facing a mental health ‘crisis’ while responding to the death of a student over the weekend, the fifth in the past 10 months. 

“Having worked with students my entire career, and as a parent myself, this news is heartbreaking. Today, we grieve side-by-side,” said Frémont. “The U of O is committed —  and I am committed — to ensuring that the mental health needs of our students are addressed as comprehensively as possible on campus.”

The most recent student death comes less than two months after a wave of students and thousands of petition signers demanded better mental health services from the university in the wake of the fourth student death of 2019 in December.

Meanwhile, hundreds of students recently condemned and protested a Scientology linked anti-psychiatry exhibit that was set up on campus two weeks ago. Frémont called the display —  which was installed just days after the school finished its annual wellness week — “outrageous” and “hurtful” but refused to take down. 

Frémont said the school is working to improve the services available on campus and highlighted the recently released “Roadmap to Wellness at uOttawa” report, which contained a number of recommendations to improve the school’s mental health services that are set to be implemented “in the near future.” 

Some of those recommendations include embedding mental health and wellness into all levels of daily practices at the university, boosting mental health literacy, reducing structural and systemic barriers, and further investing in current services and programming, according to the report.

However, that same report concluded that the school currently “lacks a cohesive, overarching, sophisticated and modern strategic framework” that would allow for the university to move toward a culture of wellness. 

“We do hope to be in the position to offer more immediate support if we can to students who need immediate support,” said Frémont. 

The school also announced the launch of a new task force on mental health in January, which will hold a town hall on mental health later this month. Among other measures, Frémont said the university is looking to build relationships with local hospitals and reach out to students for their input. 

Frémont 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. Another counsellor has also been added for faculty and staff, he said. 

“Like every university across Canada, we have made strides to try to meet the demand for mental health services of our community — addressing mental health is a highly complex societal challenge,” said Frémont. “There is no quick fix. There is no established practice. “

Vice-president (academic affairs) Jill Scott, left, president Jacques Frémont, and dean of the faculty of arts Kevin Kee.

Speaking directly to students, Frémont urged those in distress to seek help. 

“I know that at times this university can feel big and impersonal, but I want you to know that in reality it is filled with kind and caring people, it really is,” he said. “We are a community of people who care. If you’re struggling, if you feel you can no longer cope, please reach out to our counsellors.”

Second-year U of O student Camelia Skaf, who attended the press conference and lives with mental illnesses, asked Frémont if the university will start training professors on how to assist students who are struggling with mental health issues, which he said the school is working on.

“I think there’s a huge lack of information,” said Skaf after the press conference. “If someone struggles with anxiety and depression … Knowing what types of things can happen to students, knowing why they happen (is important).”

Students are set to hold a sit-in outside of Frémont’s office on Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., “in response to a suicide epidemic on campus and the lack of action on the part of the university,” according to the Facebook event for the protest.

“We acknowledge the mental health crisis on campus and are currently working with the university to address it,” the UOSU said in a statement posted to Facebook. “The UOSU demands a proactive approach to tackle the mental health question.”

At the press conference, Frémont also confirmed that Gatineau police are searching for a U of O student who has been missing since Thursday. 

“If you have any information about Jonathan, I encourage you to contact the Gatineau police as soon as possible,” Frémont said in French. “We all hope that he is found alive and well very soon.” 

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.