UW students advocate for better mental health services

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The mental health conversation at the University of Waterloo has experienced a dramatic surge in activity, following a student suicide which occurred on March 20 at UW Place residence. This was the second suicide to take place at UW this semester, the previous occurring on Jan. 12.

“Mental health has always been a concern on this campus. I’m sure it’s been a concern on basically every campus in the country, but in the last week it’s really hit home for a lot of people,” said Chris Lolas, president of The Federation of Students (FEDS) at UW.

One of the first mediums students turned to was the online world to express their grief and dissatisfaction with how mental health is handled.

This came in the form of numerous posts on the UWaterloo forum on Reddit, including a post allegedly by the 16-year-old brother of the student who died on March 20. The person who posted expressed grievances his family experienced with how the university allegedly handled mental health and his brother’s death.

Other students on the forum expressed dissatisfaction with the availability of counsellors and the way the family of the student was treated by the university.

Students at UW and beyond also expressed their desire for change through a petition created by Nicole St. Clair, a second-year political science student at UW. The petition now has over 15,000 signatures.

“I created the petition because after what happened last Monday, I couldn’t just sit back and not do anything about it. I just wouldn’t feel good about that. So a petition was just the first thing that popped into my mind and I thought it would be a good way to get input and ideas from the community,” St. Clair said.

Feedback gathered from the petition was brought to a meeting on March 27 between St. Clair and the University of Waterloo.

Later that day, Feridun Hamdullahpur, president of the University of Waterloo, put out a blog post titled “A community committed to action on mental health.”

In the post, he outlined the steps the university will take to change the mental health environment at UW. Specifically, he promised the creation of a president’s advisory committee on mental health, an increase in public education around mental health and how to get help, as well as engagement opportunities.

The engagement opportunities will include open houses staffed by mental health professionals and opportunities to provide feedback online. This will result in the creation of a report that will be released in fall 2017.

St. Clair explained that she will be encouraging students to participate in these opportunities and that these changes would not have been possible without support from the student community.

The FEDS have also been working on initiatives aimed at improving the mental health of students at UW. One initiative FEDS is focusing on is the Mentor Assistance Through Education and Support (MATES) program.

“[MATES] is a service run jointly by the FEDS and UW Counselling Services and it offers peer to peer support. We joined with MATES within the last year so we’re trying to increase the number of students involved … once we got involved the number of volunteers grew dramatically, so we need to keep growing that initiative,” Lolas said.

Lolas also noted that FEDS is ready to support other student initiatives to improve mental health at the UW campus.

“We’d encourage any students if they got an idea … for an initiative to improve mental health to reach out to us and we’ll support them the best we can.”

Mental health is an issue across all Ontario university campuses.

A survey from the Ontario University and College Health Association conducted in spring 2016 revealed that 13 per cent of college and university students had seriously considered suicide in the previous year. Sixty-five per cent of students reported over-whelming anxiety and 46 per cent reported depression that made it difficult to function.

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