Office of the Principal and Vice-Chancellor

[Principal and Vice Chancellor]
[Principal and Vice Chancellor]

Whig Standard Opinion Piece 

Improving mental health on campus 

Saturday, May 9, 2015

With this past week having marked the Canadian Mental Health Association's 64th annual mental health week (this year's focus has been on the mental health and well-being of men and boys), I've been thinking a lot about the students who have struggled on our campus, in particular those who have died by suicide as well as those who continue to struggle on university and college campuses across the country. I especially recall the dreadful year of 2010-11, which witnessed several sad instances of this. The only good thing that came from those student deaths for Queen's University is that it brought the issue of mental illness out of the shadows -- and made pushing it back in unfathomable.

That's why, in the spring of 2011, I struck the Principal's Commission on Mental Health and asked its members to look at how Queen's was doing when it came to dealing with mental health issues. After months of consultation, they came back with more than 100 recommendations for action, some of which had already been carried out, and others that we were able to implement quickly.

In the past few years, we have embedded counsellors in a number of faculties and residences (meaning that students no longer have to go very far to seek them out in a dedicated building -- they are where they're needed. They can also interact more directly with academic program advisers and faculty where they observe students in distress). We have also put a system of prioritizing and triaging cases in place within our health and counselling unit so that the most urgent cases are seen first. This year, we piloted a number of new programs, including QSuccess (a transition program to support entering students) and Bounce Back (which helps students who have gotten off to a poor academic start, often due to anxiety or stress), along with a peer-mentoring initiative, M², which pairs specially trained upper-year students with students who are struggling with mental health. Although there were only 18 spots to fill, 135 students put their names forward to volunteer as mentors.

While some have pointed to helicopter parenting or a lack of resilience in today's young people for the rise in anxiety and depression, the fact remains that many are struggling, some with extremely serious forms of mental illness. In 2013, more than 1,200 Queen's students participated in a national online survey on student health and wellness. 92% of them reported that in the past 12 months they had felt overwhelmed by all that they had to do, and 39% identified having felt so depressed it was difficult to function. Students at other institutions reported similar numbers.

Without a doubt, the most important outcome of the Principal's Commission and its consultations has been the willingness of people, especially our students, to talk about mental health. Certainly, when I was a Queen's student in the late 1970s, it wasn't a subject that could be openly discussed. By contrast, I am constantly impressed and amazed at the number of student-led initiatives championing mental health, including a recent video made by our student athletes. Queen's students also participate in larger mental health events, such as the annual Unleash the Noise event in Toronto, organized by Jack.org, a non-profit founded and led by Eric Windeler in memory of his son, Jack, a Queen's student who died by suicide in March 2010.

While we still have some distance to travel, I am confident that we are improving things, not just for those students who need immediate help, but also for the entire university community.

Daniel Woolf is principal and vice-chancellor of Queen's University