A former University of Guelph student has launched a petition asking the school for changes to its mental health services after four students took their own lives.
Connie Ly started a petition entitled, “Guelph: Stop Losing students to Mental Illness,” after the deaths of four students since Nov. 1.
The university identified the students as Kyle Coleman (first year), Farzom Zarifi-Rad (first year), Riley Lynch (fourth year). A fourth student’s name was not released.
The petition calls for transparency and changes to be made by the university, specifically in regards to openness about funding, programs available and the school’s response to the increase in students asking for help.
It has garnered over 1,700 signatures since its inception two days ago calling for action.
“The point of the petition wasn’t to lay blame on any single individual within the University. This is something that is greater than one person can fix. However, with the increase in student deaths this past semester, it’s clear that something needs to change within the University,” Ly told Global News in a statement.
“I believe that the petition asks for things that are realistic. Change happens through incremental steps, and it’s time for the school to be open and direct to what these steps are.”
She added that some of the petition comments were “concerning.”
“The perception is that the school doesn’t care,” she said. “Students aren’t going to feel supported if the school isn’t open to what they intend to do to support them.”
Katie Pothier, a first-year University of Guelph student, posted Ly’s petition in the Facebook group “Overheard at Guelph” and called on fellow Gryphons to sign the petition and stand in solidarity to show the school that something needs to be done.
“We are a university, we are a community, and any death on our community affects us all,” Pothier told Global News.
“I really believe that Guelph needs to be doing a better job at the care that we are giving to our students for mental health awareness. We have resources that tell us all about the resources but when we finally get there, they are very underfunded, very backed up.”
Pothier said she didn’t know any of the four students personally, but she wanted to help as she said she can relate to the stress that students can go through on a regular basis.
“Being away from home, being on campus, homework, maybe you don’t get along with your roommate. When it all piles up and you don’t have the resources available to you, it’s difficult,” she said.
“I definitely feel it to be a responsibility to keep all of our family members safe here. I hope everyone signs the petition, I hope everyone pays attention and I hope voices are heard today.”
Brenda Whiteside, associate vice president of student affairs at the University, told Global News adding more counsellors won’t solve the problem alone.
“I think where we struggle is with the increase in the percentage of students that are requiring counseling. We use the national college health assessment that looks at the percentages and each year it goes up and up,” she said.
“I think there is this simple feeling that if there was another counsellor, then this wouldn’t be happening, and it’s much more complicated than that.”
The university currently has 23,000 students and 14 equivalent counsellors available to them. The school also has two full-time equivalent psychiatrists and a full family health team, with two more positions added last year.
Whiteside said the key is to focus on a more integrated approach to mental illness, incorporating preventative measures rather than just focusing on intervention.
She added the idea is to provide resources for students so that they perhaps don’t need to get to a place where they need counselling, such as early warning programs, peer helpers, and resident life assistance.
“You have to focus on a healthy lifestyle and the counselling piece is the last piece of that framework, but it’s not the only piece,” she said.
“We have a mental health integrative plan and an advisory committee. We worry about the whole range, from early intervention, to transition, to support, to peer-to-peer support.”
There has been an increase in students suffering from illnesses such as anxiety disorders and depression, but Whiteside also said they are seeing a real increase in students with more serious mental health issues and that is where the real struggle lies.
“Are we designed to be doing significant mental health for some of the more long-term needs and whose responsibility is that?” she asked.
“That’s some of the issues we are starting to see and we have to grapple with, is this our mandate? Or is that the mandate of the city, and what does that look like?”
On top of the four losses this year, the university also had to cope with two more deaths last school year, and Whiteside echoed both Ly and Pothier’s sentiments about how difficult the losses of the four students have been on the institution and the community.
“It’s a struggle for us, losing a student is tough. I think that for us, we have a lot of pride in our sense of community and our support and we look out for each other, so each loss has been a real struggle for us,” she said.
“This is an anomalous year for us, we are struggling. But I am committed to that integrated approach.”
University of Guelph counselling services and other supports available to students:
Student Counselling Services, Ext. 53244
Student Support Network (drop-in hours are noon to 10 p.m., Monday to Friday, Raithby House)
Good2Talk Helpline, 1-866-925-5454
Employee Assistance Program for faculty and staff, Ext. 52133
Multi-Faith Resource Team, Ext. 52392