Mental Heath Forum Lackluster

Cameron Soltys - 4B Mechanical Engineering
Posted on: March 14, 2018

On Wednesday, March 14, the University of Waterloo hosted a forum to discuss the report put forward by the President’s Advisory Committee on Student Mental Health (PAC-SMH), which had been released earlier that week on March 12. The forum, which took place at Federation Hall, was attended by a large crowd: every seat was taken and a substantial number of people stood along the back and sides of the room.

The PAC-SMH was set up in May 2017 to, in the words of its Terms of Reference: “collect a broad set of information on student mental health… advise on the status of the progress of mental health initiatives… examine root causes of student stress, anxiety and depression, and how to mitigate them proactively instead of reactively.” The committee operated by posing questions to five expert panels—which, in total, featured some 100 students, staff, and faculty. This feedback was used to generate the report, the most significant part of which is a list of 36 recommendations.

The 36 recommendations are on a broad variety of topics. One of the most significant recommendations, at least to engineering students,  is a review of the “unnecessary stress” students in 4-stream coop programs are put under as they try to balance transitioning to university with the added pressure of finding a job. Another significant, distinctly actionable, and long-desired recommendation is to implement a ratio of one clinical staff member for every 1000 students. This recommendation further calls for additional resources during peak times like exam season. Another pair of recommendations touched on the important, Waterloo-specific issue of providing support to the multitude of students that are away on co-op; points include considering the feasibility of offering 24/7 remote services and informing students about off-campus services. Unsurprisingly, but nevertheless importantly, one of the recommendations is that a new committee be established to oversee the implementation of these recommendations and provide feedback to the University based on its performance. This committee would also be responsible for prioritizing the activities recommended by the PAC-SMH.

The report seems to be a good foundation for moving forward. It identifies clear issues, many ideas for further pursuit, and a couple of clear and immediate possibilities for action. There was some sense of disappointment about the limited number of concrete plans that are in the works: President Feridun Hamdullahpur announced chair of aforementioned oversight committee as John Hirdes of the School of Public Health and Health Systems, as well as reaffirmed the $1.2 million announced on Monday that should help the university achieve the goal of one clinical staff per 1000 students. That disappointment is, perhaps, unjustified because the intention of the PAC-SMH was, as is clearly lain out in its terms of reference, a fact-finding, consolidating, and problem-naming venture. However, justified or not, the lack of immediately actionable items is undoubtedly going to put pressure on the administration to produce concrete results, for the recommendations to be prioritized quickly, and for a path for taking more significant actions to be established promptly.

The forum started off as a polished event, with friendly greeters handing out glossy executive summaries of the PAC-SMH report. President Hamdullaphur made opening comments, thanking the committee for their work and talking about the progress that has been done and still needs to be done by the university. The main substance of the formal part of the forum was provided by Walter Mittelstaedt, the chair of the committee and Director of Campus Wellness. He went into more depth about some of the most significant recommendations and, in particular, the process of the committee and the five panels that gave their feedback. Finally Angela Pereira, representing the Alumni Council, told her story of dealing with anxiety and depression and offered platitudes that alumni want to engage and help with the mental health situation. In all, the formal presentation lacked some substance, but that can largely be attributed to the justified lack of actionable items in the report.

Where the forum really fell down was in the Q&A portion, where Hamdullahpur and Mittelstaedt took audience questions. The questions were, in general, insightful and pressing. The responses were adequate, though not spectacular. The real lackluster aspect of this supposedly active forum was the extremely limited time allotted to questions. Only a handful were taken before the forum broke up, though people were invited to bring their feedback or discuss further at a couple of feedback stations that catered to specific questions. Though I didn’t personally visit those stations, the feedback appeared to be delivered via Post-It note stuck on a poster.

The feedback session didn’t specifically end at that point, as all the speakers stuck around to talk further with individuals or small groups. However, even with that service, the whole event was essentially over by 4 PM, with only a few people left clustered around each. Furthermore, this was apparently expected, as Mittelstaedt mentioned that he and Hamdullahpur had scheduled a meeting for 4 PM (though, to be clear, they both stayed past that appointed time). Nevertheless, the net result was that it seemed like the interactive portion was superficial or, at the very least, excessively limited.

Hopefully the announced initiatives—the additional counsellors and the committee to prioritize recommendations—will produce fruitful results. Hopefully the increased awareness and concern expressed by students over the past days and months about the state of mental health will lead to positive change. Hopefully, one way or another, by the continued effort of the university, its students, and society as a whole, the stigma around mental health and the terrible loss of potential that comes with it will fall ever lower and lower.

There are no comments yet, add one below.

Leave a Comment