Photo: Rame Abdulkader/Fulcrum
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Content warning: Suicide 

We shouldn’t be reporting that at least four University of Ottawa students have died in the past eight months — it’s a string of tragedies no campus should ever have to face. Our fellow students shouldn’t have had to wake up to almost identical emailed statements from the administration four times since April giving notice of these deaths. 

We won’t deny that supporting the mental health of students is a challenge every post-secondary institution in this country faces. One in five of us will personally experience a mental health issue or illness in any given year, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). And on our campuses, the number of students diagnosed with a mental health condition has more than doubled over the past five years, according to Ontario Universities

But we’d be detracting from the seriousness of the matter at the U of O and failing the families, friends, and loved ones of students who have died if we don’t label this issue on our campus what it is: a crisis. 

The U of O administration’s current approach to supporting the mental health of its students clearly has gaps, and some students are slipping through. Now is the time for the university to take immediate and comprehensive action on improving their approach and bettering the services they offer. 

We commend the students who have risen up to form the U of O Collective 4 Mental Health and are mobilizing for change. We broadly side with the recommendations they have outlined in an online petition, now approaching 6,000 signatures. 

U of O needs to better support and enhance counselling system 

In our view, the university administration needs to better support and enhance their counselling system.

The U of O recently introduced an overhaul of the Student Academic Success Service (SASS), the primary place students turn to when in need of care. According to the administration, eight new counsellors were hired at the start of September and through their walk-in program, students in distress can see a counsellor on the same day to determine their next steps. 

After that, the administration says students should expect to wait no more than one to two weeks between appointments, depending on their needs. SASS is now open on three evenings a week and Saturdays and also launched a new stepped care model last year, with seven different forms of support directed toward students in need. 

These are great steps forward that do deserve applause, but they ultimately don’t go far enough and there is room for improvement.

For starters, it’s time to acknowledge that not all students are experiencing the counselling system in the way the university has set it up to function or may think it is functioning.

As students, we’ve all heard the stories, and chances are you’ve probably come face to face with some kind of barrier to accessing care on campus yourself: Some students report the time to see a counsellor can stretch into months. Other students who do finally gather the courage to reach out for help have said that they are left in the dark for weeks, or never hear back in the first place. More have reported that a counsellor was dismissive of their concerns or lacked the skills needed to support them.

This can’t be happening. Reaching out for help can be an incredibly difficult experience for a student, and when that call for help is met with silence or rejection, it can add to the stigmas surrounding mental illness or even exacerbate the issues at hand.

The increased hours of operation at SASS do show great potential, but for some, mental health crises can’t wait until morning — SASS should look at implementing 24-hour services, especially during midterms and final exams when students’ mental health issues can peak.

Finally, we recognize the good intentions behind the stepped care model used at SASS, but we’re concerned students in need are being directed away from the one-on-one and face-to-face counselling they need and toward online classes and resources instead. This model may well be effective for students struggling to adapt to heavier workloads or busy schedules, but we fear it could be isolating and ineffective for students with mental health issues beyond these concerns.

We need an in-depth study of how the counselling system is really functioning, with a focus on determining the average wait times students face to accessing their first appointment and between future appointments, along with the times of the year these wait times peak. Gathering feedback from students on the service, centred on how they think it can be improved, will prove to be invaluable.

In our view, one solution here seems to be to hire more professional staff, but they shouldn’t just be counsellors. We should focus on increasing the number of specialists on staff, including psychologists with specializations in different types of mental illness and psychiatrists to prescribe medication if needed and to oversee care regimens. At the very least, students should be able to rely on their insurance plans to cover the costs of these specialists if they seek outside care or are referred to an off-campus specialist.

We need to clarify here that the onus for improving SASS does not fall on the counsellors who work there. The vast majority of them are committed to doing everything in their power to support students who are struggling and do help hundreds, if not thousands of people every year. 

Instead, students should be looking to Tabaret Hall for change, where these critical funding, policy, and staffing decisions are made — the school’s mental health experts can only work with the tools they’ve been provided with. 

As our colleagues at La Rotonde reported in November, the university had a $91-million surplus in the 2018-19 fiscal year. The $400,000 a year boost the administration gave to SASS in September, only after matching a funding increase from the University of Ottawa Students’ Union, represents just about 0.43 per cent of this excess revenue over expenses. 

Available funding doesn’t seem to be an issue: it’s a question of how to spend this money. But when the health, wellbeing, and safety of students is on the line, should that even be a question in the first place? 

Time for better promotion of available resources and services 

In the end, we may never know if the four students who have died this year were accessing care or attempted to access services through the university. 

This is where promotion plays a role: Members of the university administration should begin visiting classrooms and lecture halls to promote the different mental health services offered both on and off campus and to let students know that they are listening and that they care. This same kind of action should take place in residence buildings and common spaces on campus.

In our view, the majority of students aren’t aware of the services they can access on campus or throughout the city through the university, and the onus for increasing that awareness falls on the university administration. 

For example, while we are aware that students can access psychologists and psychiatrists through Health Services (though that clinic is plagued by long wait times), we for one had no idea that the U of O has a Centre for Psychological Services and Research in Vanier Hall with its own team of psychologists and psychiatrists until it was highlighted in a comment on social media.

In fact, the service is nowhere to be found on the university’s mental health and wellness portal.  While the online portal does promote many other resources for students, this shortfall reveals critical gaps in the way services are presented online. In a similar vein, we were also unaware of the university’s partnerships with the CMHA or the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre.

While the presentation of resources online does need to be improved, we feel a face-to-face and on-the-ground approach to promotion would be the stronger and more effective method. We recommend the university finds ways to integrate awareness of mental health resources into lecture material at the start of each semester and into 101 Week schedules, perhaps with mandatory information sessions for all first-year students. This way, both new and returning students are educated on the options available to them.

Professors and other frontline staff at the university should be fully briefed on these resources so they can accurately and effectively provide students with the information and accommodations they may need. This is the first opportunity to listen and provide assistance to a student in need, which we’ll expand on below.

Introduce transparent and comprehensive training for all staff 

Another crucial measure we believe the university needs to implement is widespread mental health training for all employees of the university, with a focus on professors. We’re aware that the university does provide a number of training programs to its employees (and students), but it’s unclear if this training is mandatory or adequate. 

We’d like to see the U of O administration launch compulsory and yearly mental health training. This training should be built and taught by experts in the mental health field, in collaboration with students, and be a requirement for all university staff. The training itself should cover the basics of mental health issues, signs of crisis, best practices around accommodations for students, and the paths to accessing care.

And as one of the co-founders of the U of O Collective 4 Mental Health Laura O’Connor pointed out, it’s integral that this training is trauma-informed and takes an intersectional approach to support the unique needs of LGBTQ2S+ peoples and Black, Indigenous, people of colour.

While we in no way expect professors to become mental health experts or professionals, we do firmly believe that they need to be properly informed on how to accommodate students’ mental health issues and how to respect the dignity of these students. Professors play an integral role in building an environment where students with mental health issues feel supported and respected. Faculties full of professors who are properly informed on mental health issues will go a long way in achieving these goals. 

The administration should also spend time taking a critical look at the U of O programs where students are facing mental health issues or their pre-existing issues are being exacerbated due to especially heavy workloads, busy schedules, or traumatic course content. If they aren’t already, students in these programs should be offered specialized forms of support and accommodations. It may also be helpful for the university to weigh curriculum changes if need be. 

To carve a path forward, now is the time to listen and collaborate

The U of O’s administration needs to understand that now is the time to listen, and emailed statements directing students to services that many aren’t satisfied with will not cut it anymore. 

For a mental health strategy on a university campus to be effective, it needs to be guided by the students who interact with it on the ground on a daily basis. The university should look to set up consultations with stakeholders and community members, especially the U of O Collective 4 Mental Health, the University of Ottawa Students’ Union, and the Graduate Students’ Association, as soon as possible.

Town halls would also be effective, giving students the opportunity to share their concerns and experiences directly with the administration, but on-site support needs to be available at these meetings.

What our community needs now is a concrete plan of action along with a clear, decisive acknowledgment of the issues at hand. We’d like to see the development of both a short-term and long-term strategy through a transparent and collaborative approach, with publicly available timelines for the implementation of these measures and concrete goals to meet. 

We have no doubt that this university can build an environment that fosters better mental health for its students and supports those who are in need, and some progress is being made. But as associate vice-president of student services Michel Guilbeault said, “one death is one too many on this campus.” 

It’s time for the U of O administration to take that commitment seriously. 

Editorials are written by the Fulcrum’s nine-person editorial board and express the opinion of the board. To share your own views, email editor@thefulcrum.ca 

Students, we want to hear your experiences accessing the U of O’s mental health care system. Fill out our anonymous survey and if you feel comfortable being contacted for more information please leave your name and email/phone number at the bottom. 

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…