Students walk out to protest lack of mental health support

Photo: Humans of UWaterloo/Facebook.

All across the country, universities and colleges are struggling to respond to growing numbers of students seeking support for mental and emotional health. A 2016 NCHA survey of more than 25,000 students reported that 46 per cent of participants had felt so depressed that it was difficult to function, while 65 per cent had experienced overwhelming anxiety, 13 per cent have considered suicide, and 11 per cent had attempted suicide.

On many campuses, the demand for services is so great that students are forced to wait up to two months for resources such as counselling. Their wait may be shortened if staff determine that a student is "in crisis," however, for most students a four to six-week wait is quite common.

As a result, students not in crisis when they first seek help may find themselves in crisis by their first appointment after failing to receive earlier support. Under-resourced support systems in our post-secondary institutions have forced staff to triage mental health, leaving many others in need under supported or entirely unsupported.

On Thursday, March 8, several hundred students and faculty at the University of Waterloo (UW) staged a walkout after a fourth-year student died by suicide earlier in the month. The student’s death marked the third death by suicide at UW in the last 14 months and, according to The Record, roughly the 10th since 2012.

The idea for the walkout began in Professor Frances Condon 300-level class "The Discourse of Dissent." In a class where students actively participate conversations about power and dissent, Condon says that "it didn’t feel right to go on with class as if nothing had happened." Instead of teaching the class as she normally would, Condon engaged her students in a conversation about the recent death on campus and about mental and emotional health.

"I think as soon as you raise the question of mental and emotional wellness in a classroom full of university students it quickly becomes apparent that a great number of students in your class are in counselling, have sought counselling, have been turned away from counselling, haven’t gotten the help they’ve needed, and are suffering," says Condon.

"In this particular conversation, it was clear that students were angry and that they were done with waiting for the next report to come out, for the next series of recommendations."

From this conversation, several of the students in the classroom felt compelled to organize a walkout. Kai Butterfield, one of the organizers of the walkout, points out that it had two objectives.

Firstly, it aimed to hold the university accountable to the student and faculty calls for increased mental health services on campus.

Secondly, organizers strove to create a space for conversation about what many students are calling a "toxic culture" on campus.

"We want to ask students, faculty, and staff members how we devalue others in our learning environment for the sake of Waterloo’s brand and where that happens on campus," says Butterfield.

"What are the expectations in our lecture halls that perpetuate harm? Are students reaching out to one another and interacting with one another or do we isolate each other for the sake of competition and for the sake of continued innovation?"

Intense competitiveness, isolation, and transience are just a few of the factors that some students and faculty say contribute to a toxic culture and student environment on campus.

The co-op program, for example, often requires students to move several times over the course of a year, sometimes as often as every four months. As a result of their transience, students are often unable to establish community.

While the University of Waterloo proudly declares that it is "at the forefront of innovation" and "will shape the future by building bridges with industry and between disciplines, institutions and communities," students and faculty have been arguing for years that the pressure to innovate at all costs is harming students.

The Mental Health Project, an student-led initiative on UW campus launched in September 2016, interviewed students and faculty on the question "what weighs us down?" Excerpts from the interviews were then superimposed onto photographed portraits of the participants and the portraits were placed around campus as a way of sparking a conversation.

Jana Omar Elkhatib, an organizer of the campaign, notes that idea from the campaign was to create a more holistic conversation around mental health. Elkhatib highlights issues like the co-op program, competiveness on campus, lack of community, an under-resourced student union, and a lack of support for racialized student as examples gaps in wellness.

While Elkhatib is clear that these gaps are not unique to UW, she does also see that the burden to address these gaps on the UW campus currently falls to students. This is a burden she sees as inappropriate for students.

Matthew Grant, a spokesperson for the university, notes that the university currently has 22 full-time equivalent counsellors, two psychiatrists, one mental health nurse, and 35 mental health professionals at its medical centre.

When asked about whether these services are adequate, Grant says that UW is working hard to create an environment where students feel supported and included and that the Presidential Advisory Committee Report on Student Mental Health, which came out on March 14, is designed to inform the university’s wellness priorities moving forward. (Executive summary can be seen here.) Similiarly, when questioned about complaints from students that that co-op program encourages transience and isolation, Grant notes that "our research shows that students come to Waterloo for the co-op program."

"We want to get it right," Grant affirms, "Mental health is an issue on campuses across the country and the president has made it one of the top priorities."

Some students, however, are uncertain whether the university has a genuine commitment to mental health given its track record. Emma McKay says that the university response was prompted by an unprecedented community response to a death by suicide last year, including a petition that received more than 15,000 signatures. McKay is UW grad student who co-founded a group called Disability Advocacy and Community Alliance (DACA), which focuses on disability advocacy.

"It was convened in response to the community action after the second suicide of 2017 and that was really notable, but it wasn’t convened in response to the suicide, it was convened in response to the response to the suicide."

McKay was a member of one of the five subcommittees contributing to the presidential advisory committee on student mental health. They claims that students struggled to balance their obligations to the committee with the school work, adding that lack of child care prevented one student from being able to participate. They also notes that disabled students were not centred in the process and that they had to challenge a prevailing dynamic wherein "disabled people are often treated as though they are not experts on their own illness."

They says that while awareness among many barriers to student participation in the committee which caused student involvement to decline dramatically over the approximate six-month committee process. According to McKay, the committee began with more than 20 students and was left with six in the end.

In the coming months, all eyes will be on the University of Waterloo to see if it will take action on the recommendations outlined in Wednesday’s report. The recent deaths on campus have brought into focus the question of how to best support students with a wide range of needs in the high-pressure environments of our post-secondary institutions. While the complexities of this question is currently playing out in real time on the UW campus, these issues are by no means unique to that institution.

As universities and colleges continue to push students toward innovation, students and faculty across the country will require greater supports for the resultant stresses. Students will also need to be integrated into a different pedagogical approach, one that sees students as people with diverse needs rather than economic units reducible to their productivity.

In this new approach, consent must also be a central consideration. As walkout organizer Kai Butterfield concedes, while students do consent to their institutions by applying and ultimately accepting a position, the conversation around mental and emotional health must now include ways of removing consent.

"Now, it’s about asking how do we remove consent because the organizers of the walkout no longer want to give consent to the loss of life but our participation [in this system] is consent in that. So we want to think about the ways as individuals, whether as a student or a faculty member, we can remove our consent and say no. There is no degree that this university can offer me that is worth the loss of another student."

Phillip Dwight Morgan is the recipient of the first Jack Layton Journalism for Change Fellowship, supported by rabble.ca and the Institute for Change Leaders. He is a Toronto-based journalist, poet, and researcher. 

Photo: Humans of UWaterloo/Facebook.

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