Letter to the Editor graphic
Image: Dasser Kamran/Fulcrum.
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Dear Editor,

I read your passionate editorial about student mental health with great interest. It is good that you care so much about students and their well-being. I do too. I also appreciate the fact that you have taken the time to read the 12 recommendations from the President’s Advisory Committee’s Final Report. As the university advisor on mental health, I felt compelled to write to address some of your concerns. There are also some misperceptions that I would like to correct. It is crucial that students have the most up-to-date information so that they do not feel hesitant to seek the help that they need.

I took on this role because I am passionate about students and about ensuring that they all have the opportunity to learn while well, in an environment that is safe and welcoming. I would also like to say that I am only one person and that there are many others, at student affairs, within faculties, and across the university who continue to work hard to ensure better mental health and wellness for the whole university.  Since I took on this role, I have had the privilege of talking with many people, including undergraduate and graduate students, administrative staff, professors, vice-deans, deans, vice-presidents, the provost and the president.  All care deeply about students, about their mental health and indeed about the mental health of everyone in our community.  We need to bring even more people together around this issue; we need a ‘whole of university’ approach. We all are responsible for each other’s safety and well being, whether we are students, professors, deans, administrators or other employees. It is critical that everyone has the tools, skills and support needed to be well and to help others when needed.  You have an important voice; I encourage you to get involved to positively influence the university’s priorities regarding mental health resources.

I am glad that you called the recommendations ‘Action-based’, because that is how I read them too. They call for clear actions; and we have measurable outcomes for accountability. They were based on wide consultations across the university community, including several with students. I want to reassure you that we do, indeed have many of the resources needed to facilitate implementation of the 12 recommendations and, that in fact, many people, including student affairs and all faculties are already implementing several of them. Of course, there are still gaps and we are working on many of them. You note that your colleague had to wait seven months for a psychiatric appointment. I am sorry to hear that. We are aware that there are wait times for psychiatric services, a specialized mental health service funded by the Province of Ontario.   We do not have the mandate to provide such services, so to help support our students in a timely fashion, uOttawa developed a partnership with the Royal Ottawa Hospital to provide free access to virtual psychiatric consultations through telemedicine.  Counselling services can refer students to this service. 

I am happy that you think that Recommendation Five should move ahead and in fact it and Recommendation Eight (support for specific communities) are already underway. Specifically, Counselling Services has hired two racialized counsellors. Furthermore, there is currently no waiting list for counselling services. In terms of the physical wellness hub, the first steps are being taken.  There is now a Virtual Wellness Lounge where all students can chat with mentors about concerns; these mentors can also point them to appropriate resources.  A temporary home for the physical lounge is being set up now. This is all good news for students.  

Recommendations Three and Four are not just marketing exercises, they are about raising awareness and an openness to mental health across the university.   We do need better two-way communication; we have heard from many people who do not know what resources are available at the university. The question of reporting on student death is terribly difficult and complex, mixing sorrow, the need to know and the issue of potential triggering.  We are setting up a Communications Working Group to develop better protocols for this.  Of course, all that we do is aimed at prevention.

We must ensure that these 12 recommendations are being implemented wisely, with input and approval from passionate people in the university community. We also need to identify gaps and emerging issues, set priorities and further identify measurable outcomes. 

To these ends, we have started work within two committees.  These committees are the Mental Health and Wellness Steering Group and the Mental Health and Wellness Advisory Group.  The Steering Group comprises people who have the power to take actions in their own sector. The Advisory Group comprises 11 diverse students, 5 professors, two to three administrative employees and community experts on mental health.  The committees will work closely together. We are in the process of setting priorities and of building working groups for specific priority issues. 

I am pleased that you included a list of resources below your article.   I would ask that you also post a link to the university wellness website (https://www.uottawa.ca/wellness/) with this letter. Two of the most important buttons are “Need Help now” and ‘Concerned about someone”.  I would also ask that you refer people to the two PDFs enclosed here that give a quick guide to when someone needs professional help. Finally, if you or anyone else wishes to talk with me about any of this, I will gladly make myself available.

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

On campus…

Off campus…

Elizabeth Kristjansson is the University of Ottawa’s advisor on mental health. Kristjansson was appointed in July to a three-year term. She has been a professor of psychology for 18 ½ years at the U of O and worked for about 10 years in the department of epidemiology on a longitudinal study of health and aging.