Student Wellness Centre in Mitchell Hall
The Student Wellness Centre in Mitchell Hall.

Family crisis leads to gift in support of mental-health services

Tonya Dickenson, Artsci’89, EMBA’05, and Maxime Tessier, Artsci’88 have made a meaningful financial contribution to the university after a family health crisis inspired them to support mental-health services at Queen’s. 

Tessier and Dickenson decided to share their personal story in the hope their experience could someday help others. It started 10 years ago when the couple’s child*, then a teenager, started behaving differently. Then the crisis began – a diagnosis of depression, the involvement of psychologists and psychiatrists, and their child on suicide watch.

“Our child was in 10th grade, and we were expecting to get ready to prepare CÉGEP (Quebec college) applications. In a few days, we pivoted from wanting good grades in school to wanting our child to live,” says Dickenson. “It was a tremendous shock. You don’t really sleep. You remove locks on doors. Any missed phone calls set you in a panic.”

Today, Tessier and Dickenson’s child is feeling well and they are optimistic about the future. Their hope is that their story will inspire others to collaborate to help students in mental-health crisis.  

The gift from Tessier and Dickenson will give Student Wellness Services staff access to the latest mental-health training. Some of the new skills counsellors will learn include Polyvagal training (nervous system regulation) which will benefit students in crisis often related to trauma, who need support in grounding themselves.

“There are already a lot of structures in place to support students academically and financially,” said Tessier, noting that many Queen’s students are away from home and don’t have family support close by. “We had no idea how big the problem (of mental health) is on campuses, and we realized more needs to be done.”

Demand for mental-health resources continues to grow. Studies such as the 2022 Canadian Campus Well Being Survey found troubling numbers – it revealed that 13 per cent of students had serious thoughts of suicide.

“Particularly concerning is the frequency of mental-health distress reported by students that identified within different subgroups such as gender non-conforming, 2SLGBTQ+, or those with disabilities,” says Student Wellness Services Executive Director Cynthia Gibney. “This kind of data partnered with the kinds of student issues we are seeing every day in the clinic suggests that students’ mental health is eroding and that the pandemic made things worse.”

Finding innovative approaches to treating mental health means students are treated more effectively and allows staff to see more students. 

“Mental-health training is costly, especially given the number of staff in Student Wellness Services,” says Gibney. “For certain professional designations, staff continuously need to attend training. So, gifts from alumni like Max and Tonya help our counsellors better serve the students and allow us to have a bigger impact.”

* To honour the family's wishes, the child's identity has not been disclosed.

Tonya Dickenson, Artsci'89, EMBA'05, and Maxime Tessier, Artsci'88 pose for their wedding photos on the steps of Summerhill on Queen's campus 1992.

Tonya Dickenson, Artsci'89, EMBA'05, and Maxime Tessier, Artsci'88, pose for their wedding photos on the steps of Summerhill on the Queen's campus in 1992.