Mental Health at the University of Ottawa

Before we dive into our analysis of the challenges relating to mental health at the University of Ottawa, the APUO wishes to extend its deepest condolences to those who knew one of the five students lost in the last months. We encourage members seeking support in this difficult time to connect with the available resources, including the Employee and Family Assistance Program
 
We also call on members to share any information they may have on the whereabouts of a student, Jonathan Blanchette, who has been missing since Thursday, with the Gatineau Police Service by calling (819) 246-0222.
 
In the last months, the University of Ottawa has lost five students by suicide, shedding light on a major problem on our campus and more broadly in our society. In response to media requests, the Central Administration claimed that it is doing “a lot”[1] to ensure that adequate services are in place to respond to the needs of students in distress. A $91.8 million surplus, a shortage of campus mental health resources, and a distressed student kicked out of residence tell a different story. Students and University personnel testimonies also paint a different picture of the reality on campus.
 
This January marked the 7th edition of the University of Ottawa Wellness Week. Held from January 20 to 24, the Wellness Week offered zootherapy, yoga and meditation classes, and promoted its financial aid program and the Student Academic Success Service (SASS), among other events. While useful, these resources tend to address mental health issues on campus as purely individual issues and to neglect their structural and systemic components, whether it is the pressure associated with the rising cost of tuition fees, the fact that SASS is operating beyond its capacity, poor students-professor and students-librarian ratios, or the increasing workload of professors, librarians, and support staff. Mental health can’t be isolated from its context.[2] In light of the cumulative financial surplus over the last decade, it is clear for the APUO that the Central Administration can and should reconsider its approach to mental health. 
 
During last year’s APUO Listening Tour, members across all faculties have shared that their growing workload has had a negative impact on their mental and physical wellbeing. Along with the challenges associated with a growing workload, members have expressed grave concerns for the welfare of their students, noting a spike in academic accommodation requests, and in the number of students who appear distressed in their (increasingly large) classes. The shortage of on-campus resources and the long waits to see mental health professionals are only aggravated by limited coverage for mental health services in both the student health plan and in the employee benefits package.
 
For several years, students and APUO members have been demanding more resources to meet the mental health needs of our community. Last fall, the APUO reached out to the organisers of the Wellness Week and offered to deliver a series of “Know Your Rights” workshops for members who may need workplace accommodations. Our offer was rejected because “it did not fall under one of the seven Wellness Week pillars,” revealing our institution’s narrow perspective when it comes to dealing with the challenges stemming from Mental Health on campus.  
 
We must also express our concern with the fact that the campus Wellness Week was followed up by a strange week-long Scientology exhibition titled “Psychiatry: an industry of death.” The controversial exhibition caused student outrage and protests. Indeed, students expressed concerns about the pseudo-scientific character of the exhibition, which reinforced stigma towards those diagnosed with particular mental health disorders and requiring therapy or prescription medication. The APUO is concerned that the Central Administration allowed the exhibition to take place – especially in the current context – and urges it to carefully consider the consequences associated with welcoming such exhibition on a university campus. 
 
The uOttawa Gazette of January 28 stated that “President Frémont has asked Provost and Vice-President, Academic Affairs Jill Scott to […] lead a newly created Advisory Committee on Mental Health. The Provost will also undertake a listening tour of the campus to hear from members of the uOttawa community.” We welcome this initiative and encourage the Provost to take all the time needed for such an important exercise. The APUO Listening Tour organized about thirty meetings in academic units and took almost a year. It is difficult to imagine that a listening tour of all the stakeholders on campus could do less than that.
 
The APUO will be joining the students’ union and other labour unions in the coming weeks to develop a list of demands to be presented to the Central Administration, as well as to discuss our own initiatives about mental health on campus.
 
You can find a critique of the University of Ottawa’s Wellness Week published in the students’ French newspaper, La Rotonde. 
 
For a list of on and off-campus resources to share with students, please consult the following link.

 
[1] Elizabeth Payne for the Ottawa Citizen, After four student suicides, uOttawa group demands better mental health services, December 12, 2019
[2] The report of the Campus Action Group on Mental Health and Wellness released in January is also characterized by a narrow perspective that tends to neglect the structural and systemic components of mental health issues.