The town hall on Thursday in Tabaret Hall. Photo: Emilie Azevedo/The Fulcrum
Reading Time: 11 minutes

Attendees share personal experiences, push for more services, changes to academic policies, intersectional approach

Content warning: Suicide, sexual violence

Students, professors and staff crowded into Tabaret Hall on Thursday night to discuss the mental health crisis University of Ottawa president Jacques Frémont acknowledged earlier this month, with several attendees expressing frustration over Frémont’s absence at the town hall hosted by the administration.

“I’d just like to say that I truly believe and hope that Frémont will host another town hall where he is present,” said one student. “At the last town hall (for the faculty of arts) he said he would be here today.”

The town hall allowed students, faculty, and staff to speak about the issues on campus impacting their mental health, as well as their concerns around the current system for accessing resources. 

The town hall was organized by the president’s mental health advisory committee, led by the dean of the faculty of arts Kevin Kee, which the university struck earlier this month after the fifth student death in a year was announced. 

“The purpose of today’s event is to listen,” said vice-president academic affairs and provost Jill Scott. “To hear your experiences, your concerns, your hopes, and your ideas of how the university can best support you, how you can support each other, and how we, as a community, can support our community.”

Scott sat at the front of the town hall, which was moderated by undergraduate student representative on the Board of Governors Jamie Ghossein and vice-provost academic affairs Aline Germain-Rutherford. 

Two members of the president’s mental health advisory committee sat alongside the moderators: Maxime Lê, a graduate student in communications and co-founder of the uOCollective 4 Mental Health, a student movement launched after the fourth student death of 2019 was announced in December, and faculty of health sciences professor Craig Phillips. 

“The president has said and I will repeat that we are committed to enhancing mental health services on this campus,” said Scott.

Faculty of health sciences professor Craig Phillips, left, uOCollective 4 Mental Health co-founder Maxime Lê, and provost and vice-president academic affairs Jill Scott. Photo: Emilie Azevedo/The Fulcrum

Students share concerns over Scientology linked anti-psychiatry exhibit

Several students addressed concerns over the Scientology linked anti-psychiatry exhibit titled, “Psychiatry: An Industry of Death,” that was hosted on campus for a week in January. 

Students called for a public apology sent to the community about the 14-panel exhibit that was set up in the University Centre, which contained graphic images of the Holocaust and featured panels with titles such as “Inventing Disorders to Sell Drugs”.

“I think that in many cases if you don’t know much about psychiatry and this exhibit is the first thing you see, with pictures from the Columbine shooting, the Holocaust, from 9/11, all of this being blamed on psychiatry and mental health … you automatically think, ‘Oh, I can’t get any sort of help, because the … (psychiatrists), they’re trying to do me wrong,’ ” said one student. 

“Just the fact that there’s been no email, no public clarification so far, that makes us feel very alone, very abandoned, and very left with the messages that exhibit gave us,” said another student. “By renting your spaces you are giving them access and therefore you’re endorsing their message, even just a little bit.” 

Back in January, president Frémont called the exhibit “hurtful” and “outrageous” but refused to take it down, citing concerns of drawing national attention to the exhibit if he did. 

“What specific measures is the university willing to take and commit to today to ensure that a proper vetting process will be in place to prevent such organizations from ever coming back on campus?” another student asked.

Dr. Kathleen Pajer, chair of the U of O’s department of psychiatry, shared her thoughts on the exhibit at the town hall as well. 

“To us also, it was a surprise,” said Pajer, who added that a number of residents and the department wrote a letter of concern to the administration. “But it isn’t as simple as to say this should never, ever happen again — this should never happen again in the way that it did.”

Students highlight lack of diversity among resources, need for intersectionality

Many students spoke about the lack of intersectional resources and diversity in staff when reaching out for help.

There is “only one French counsellor who is an older white man, that doesn’t represent diversity and it’s challenging for people who are not white men,” said a first-year feminist studies student in French. 

A fourth-year social science student said academic barriers for francophone students can hurt their mental health. 

“I had to take some English courses along the way because they weren’t offered in French,” the student said in French. “For me, it’s fine, I’m perfectly bilingual, but for my unilingual friends it was stressful and this doesn’t help your mental health, being forced to take courses in a language you don’t speak.” 

University of Ottawa Students’ Union student life commissioner Jason Seguya underlined the need for diversity of mental health professionals and the exhaustion that can come with needing to explain racial issues when trying to access care.

“Representation matters because it’s difficult to have to explain all of these things, it would be nice for it just to be known,” said Seguya.

Seguya touched on the anti-Black racism town hall the school hosted in November, what he called “one of the hardest events” he’s ever been a part of. 

“In that space, the only representatives from the U of O who were there for active listening, they did not represent the community — I was introduced to two or three white women to be there for active listening, to be there to support this community.” 

“Even as I’m speaking to you now, I don’t feel represented … diversity in these spaces means a lot for me,” Seguya added

Another student said the school needs to better address sexual violence and support survivors, highlighting the ways in which sexual violence and mental health issues can intertwine.

According to the province’s Student Voices on Sexual Violence Survey released in March 2019, 19.8 per cent of students who’d experienced sexual violence at the U of O had knowledge of the school’s sexual violence supports, services, and reporting procedures. 

Meanwhile, 62.4 per cent of respondents from the U of O disclosed experiencing sexual harassment, and 21.9 per cent of respondents disclosed being sexually assaulted. 

“I hope that these numbers do not shock you, Mr. Fremont — this is publicly available data on your university,” said the student. “If it is surprising to you, that is because you have chosen to ignore the voices of young women on this campus.”

The student shared concerns with the triage appointment system available to students who experience sexual violence through the Student Academic Success Service (SASS).

“A triage appointment is structured in a way where a student must essentially sell themselves on why they need care, on why they’re worthy of support from SASS,” the student said. “Your triage system forces survivors to disclose, which is against best practices when it comes to sexual violence counselling.”

The student said those who experience sexual violence often end up being referred by SASS to off-campus resources, such as the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre, but many of those types of centres say they’re in need of more provincial funding.

“President Frémont, I implore you to show that you care about women on this campus and take action on sexual violence prevention and postvention by hiring a counsellor at SASS who specializes in sexual violence,” the student said.  

“I encourage you to commit to providing training on basic mental health fundamentals and sexual violence to professors at this university. President Frémont, I promise that I will hold you and your administration accountable — mental health is multifaceted and demands an intersectional approach,” the student said to a standing ovation.

Students point to gaps in resources and need for systemic changes

A doctoral student at the U of O who has been on campus for the past 10 years pointed to a lack of counsellors, especially for graduate students. 

“There are 21 (counsellors) for the 40,000 students here at the U of O (but) how many counsellors are there full-time for graduate students?” the student said. “There are none.” 

“How many mental health counsellors are there for the roughly 700 undergraduate medical students?” the student said. “There are two.”

“Shouldn’t those numbers be at least in the same order of magnitude? That’s my recommendation, maybe start there.”

Another student pointed to a lack of resources for students with mental health issues outside of depression and anxiety. 

“At the U of O, we talk about depression, but we never talk about obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder,” the student said in French. “I know a lot of people who went to see counsellors about other things than anxiety and depression and were sent away. I think we need a better comprehension of mental health, not just depression and anxiety.” 

Others argued the school needs to boost awareness of the services it does offer. 

“One of the big issues is that students are seeking help and they don’t even know where to go, they don’t know who to contact,” said one student. “There is an absolute lack of clear guidelines as to what is provided.” 

“If we’re going to start making long-term solutions, it’s going to take time and a lot of money, but the money is worth it, because the lives we’ve lost, we will not get back,” said a fourth-year student. 

Angela Toubis and Laura O’Connor, two co-founders of the uOCollective 4 Mental Health, urged Frémont and the administration to listen to constructive criticism from students and to meet with the collective. 

Toubis and O’Connor recommended implementing a shared-care model on campus, with a number of full-time psychologists and psychiatrists dedicated to U of O students. 

“Stop saying ‘it’s too difficult, it doesn’t happen that easy,’ we know it’s not easy … but that’s why we’re here working together,” said Toubis. 

“Mental health … is not a new problem to me, but a new problem has been feeling like I have to fight my own administration every time I need to get anything done,” said a first-year engineering student. “Asking someone (students) to be responsible for other peoples’ mental health is not a solution I want to hear from my school’s president.” 

“Treat mental health as the holistic issue it is,” the student added. “Every time that a student has to go through undue hardship to get something done on campus, you’re adding to the hardships that they may already have with their mental health.”

Some student attendees came with signs demanding action on improving the U of O’s mental health system. Photo: Emilie Azevedo/The Fulcrum

Professors highlight concerns around work conditions, lack of training 

Kathryn Trevenen, a professor who teaches in the faculty of social sciences, echoed students’ recommendations for the school to take a holistic and systematic approach to mental health.

“Yes we need more services, we need more counsellors, I absolutely agree we need expertise on sexual violence and we need training for professors … but we also need to think about the conditions of work of the people on this campus,” said Trevenen, who has been teaching on campus for 17 years.  

Trevenen said she’s able to accommodate students best when she can meet with them one-on-one and build connections.

“If I have 200 students in my class, I’m much less likely to have intimate conversations with them because they won’t know me and they won’t trust me,” said Trevenen. 

“Those folks are struggling … and they’re also no doubt struggling to help their students because they don’t have time to meet with their students and they don’t have the resources, they are so overwhelmed with the working conditions,” said Trevenen. 

She also pointed to the unique mental health issues contract faculty can face, highlighting a 2018 report from the Canadian Association of University Teachers that found 87 per cent of contract faculty said their working conditions negatively impacted their mental health.

Meg Peters, a PhD candidate in the Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies and a professor, echoed Trevenen’s ideas. 

“The fact that I am paid only marginally more to teach a class than I am to TA a class is especially egregious,” said Peters. 

“There is no paid mandatory mental health training for professors … and the training that is available for professors is not mandatory and it is not enough,” Peters said, adding much of that training encourages professors to refer students to resources on campus. 

“I am essentially a counsellor when students come and they cry in my office … and I’m glad I get to have those conversations with them, but there’s also very little support for me as a professor when I have these difficult conversations.”

Jean Daniel Jacob, a professor in the faculty of health sciences, said the administration needs to listen to the experiences of students, staff and faculty on campus. Jacob, who has been on campus for over two decades, said many of these conversations around mental health have been going on for years.

Five years ago, Jacob said, the administration received the results of a survey that about 50 per cent of professors from the faculty of health sciences responded to, which spoke of “a toxic work environment, a culture of fear where professors were not able to effectively work.”

“During this period of time, over 50 people — staff and professors — left the faculty, and this information was relayed to the central administration,” Jacob said. “We were told it was normal and nothing was done — we were dismissed.” 

Students highlight need for academic change

Students also touched on the academic issues on campus that can provoke or intensify mental health issues. 

A second-year biomedical student said the school should clarify and improve what academic services or accommodations are available for those with mental health issues, especially when it comes to medical allowances and the guidelines in course syllabi.

“Your therapist cannot give you a medical allowance, it has to come from a medical doctor,” said the student. “I’m mad I’m wasting peoples’ money for a doctor who won’t know me that well, and my therapist will know that information about me and can actually assess if I’m good or I’m not.” 

The student also spoke to the difficulty of having to speak directly to professors to receive an extension if they can’t obtain a medical allowance.

“It’s very hard to do, you really have to say all your personal business and ask for mercy from this professor,” said the student. 

“I want to see accountability from the U of O on looking at our schedules and assessing what you’re asking of your students,” said a fourth-year communication student. “We want to be good students, we want to be able to go into the workforce and say ‘I went to the U of O and learned to be a holistic student and learned the appropriate skills to finish and graduate.’ ”

“I always feel like I need to make a choice between taking care of my mental health and doing well in school — for example, right now I’m missing class to be here talking to you,” said another student, urging the university to implement concrete policy changes to limit the academic stress students can face.

“I think we can start by limiting the number of deadlines we have per week, per month, something to quantify or cut down all of the things being piled on students at once,” the student added. “This is perpetuating a downward cycle of mental health.”

Going forward

Scott said the feedback from the town hall will be used to inform the work of the school’s mental health task force and added that more listening events will be coming soon. Scott said the university is also looking to do an environmental scan of other post-secondaries to ensure the school is learning from the “best practices.” 

“I have really no words to express my gratitude for what has been expressed here tonight,” said Scott. “I don’t think there’s anyone in the room here who hasn’t been moved by the courage of all members of the community and by the experiences that have been shared.” 

“Until every student at this school feels like they get the proper mental health services, myself, my friends will never stop the fight for getting students those services,” said one student. “That’s a promise I make here today.”

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.