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From the principal: improving mental health on campus

From the principal: improving mental health on campus

[campus photo with graphic text "From the principal"]
[Principal Dniel Woolf]
Daniel Woolf, Principal and Vice-Chancellor

As I write this column, we’ve just passed the ­five-year anniversary of the day first-year ­student Jack Windeler died by suicide in his residence room. That, sadly, was only the first such death on our campus since I became principal. It was clear by 2011 that mental health was emerging as a major challenge at our, and most other, Canadian universities. I empanelled the ­Principal’s Commission on Mental Health under the leadership of Dr. David Walker, and asked it to look, from top to bottom, at the whole issue of how we dealt with mental health issues at Queen’s.

The commission consulted very widely and ­reported about 16 months later, making more than 100 recommendations for action. Some in the meantime had already been carried out, and ­others soon followed.

Among the steps that have been taken in the past few years, we have “embedded” counsellors in a number of faculties (an ­initiative in which we are partnering with donors), joining those previously embedded in the residences; we have put in place a system of prioritizing and ­triaging cases at Health, Counselling and Disability Services (HCDS) so that the most urgent cases are seen first.

New programs such as Q Success (a ­transition program for entering students, funded in part by the same donors who have helped support embedded counsellors) and Bounce Back (which helps students who have gotten off to a poor academic start, often due to anxiety or stress) have been ­piloted. A committee to examine academic ­accommodations has been established.

The Provost’s Advisory Committee on Mental Health, which has faculty, staff and student representatives, has been charged with the co-ordination of campus-wide initiatives to implement the commission recommendations. We have had to set priorities and thus, three and a half years ­after the commission reported, much ­remains to be done.

The commission clarified that we have a wide range of mental health issues to confront, ranging from anxiety and stress to more serious clinically ­diagnosed conditions such as schizophrenia, anorexia and severe depression.

Perhaps the most important outcome of the ­commission and its consultations has been the ­willingness of people, especially students, to talk about mental health issues formerly left in the ­shadows. As George Jackson notes in his column, mental health was not a subject that could be openly discussed back when he and I were undergraduates.

Fortunately things have changed on this front. I have been tremendously impressed by the number of initiatives around campus to improve mental health services, many of them student-led, and by Queen’s student participation in larger events such as the annual Jack Summit, created by Eric Windeler, Com’82. Jack.org, through its Queen’s ­student initiative fund, has also been a generous ­funder of many of our mental health initiatives.

So, things are better, but we still have some ­distance to travel. Our physical facilities for HCDS remain outdated and inadequate; our dedicated and hard-working counselling staff remain hard-pressed to deal quickly with every case that comes their way. We have not yet been able to implement all of the commission’s recommendations.

All of these initiatives will require resources, and I have been very grateful for the way in which our alumni and parents have stepped up to support many of these initiatives so far. One Queen’s family, for ­instance, has generously supported a student intern position for five years in the health promotion unit of HCDS with a focus on mental health. In short, we have made considerable progress, and I am ­asking for your help in taking the next steps.

I’d like finally to note here the retirement of one of our most prominent mental health leaders: Dr. Michael Condra has been a fixture on campus for three decades. He will be retiring this June. Over his years here, Mike has been a compassionate ear and adviser to countless students in distress, and a prime mover in many innovative initiatives to ­improve mental health at Canada’s universities. Thank you, Mike, for all you have done for Queen’s and its students! [For more on Mike Condra, see Game Changers: addressing mental health issues.]

[photo of Queen's staff, faculty and students with a sign "Focus on mental health"]