uOttawa students demand better mental health supports following 5th student death in 10 months

On Wednesday, a sit-in was held at the University of Ottawa's president and vice-chancellor's office by the uOCollective4MentalHealth, a group of students who are fighting for better mental health services on campus. Supplied/Laura O'Connor

Students from the University of Ottawa are demanding for more mental health supports on campus, following the fifth student death to take place in 10 months.

The most recent student passed away over the weekend but hasn’t been identified due to privacy reasons.

“I feel like it’s time to actually start treating this like a crisis,” Jordan Gush, a third-year geology student, told Global News.

“It was time to start acting on it when the first student passed away, but now we’ve lost five young lives.”

On Wednesday, a sit-in was held at the University of Ottawa’s president and vice-chancellor’s office by the uOCollective4MentalHealth, a group of students who are fighting for better mental health services on campus.

The protest was in response to the student deaths and what the group has called a “lack of action” on the part of the university.

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“I do feel that there is a lack of responsibility taken,” said Laura O’Connor, a third-year political science student and member of the group.

“As an institution, the University of Ottawa could be doing so much more than they are for preventing these deaths.”

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O’Connor, who’s also a community organizer, said her group wants to see the school implement a “shared care model,” with a clinic established for the university population that employs a wide range of mental health care professionals, including nurse practitioners, psychotherapists, psychiatrists and psycho-pharmacologists.

“We have another idea that we still haven’t proposed to the administration, but it would be to kind of separate the mental health services and make them easier to access from whatever faculty you’re in,” said Nickolas Eburne, a member of uOCollective4MentalHealth and a second-year law student.

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“For example, if you’re in the faculty of science, they can have a desk or an office there in that building for mental health purposes and services — and the same thing for the faculty of law, faculty of social science.”

The uOCollective4MentalHealth formed after the university’s fourth student death in December, around the same time that Gush started a petition advocating for more funding and resources for mental health services on campus.

As of Wednesday, the petition has garnered over 30,000 signatures.

The collective also has its own petition to improve mental health supports on campus and has received almost 8,000 signatures as of Wednesday.

READ MORE: Black student carded on uOttawa’s campus in June was the subject of discrimination: report

On Tuesday, uOttawa president and vice-chancellor Jacques Frémont released a statement in response to the recent student death.

“On behalf of the university, I offer my deepest condolences to the deceased student’s family, friends and loved ones, and to everyone who knew them,” Frémont said.

“Having worked with students my entire career, and as a parent myself, this news is heart-breaking. Today we grieve side-by-side.”

In the statement, Frémont encourages students who are in need of social support to reach out to the campus mental health services.

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“If you visit our walk-in clinic on the second floor of 100 Marie-Curie during business hours, our counselors will see you immediately. They can and will link you to community supports that are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”

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Frémont said the university has hired six new mental health counsellors for students, in addition to a health and wellness counsellor for faculty and staff.

“We have added online tools to help students and staff cope with anxiety and depression,” Frémont said in the statement.

“We have also taken important steps to combat racial discrimination on campus, which is important in this context because we must acknowledge that racial discrimination is yet another source of anxiety and stress for some of our students.”

But Gush said despite the changes, she hasn’t seen results.

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“There’s not enough awareness around the fact that these resources are available now,” the third-year geology student said.

“I also feel like it’s not enough at all — we need a personal connection, we need medical professionals and we need the actual health care that is required for treating mental illness.”

READ MORE: Student-led mental health initiatives across Ontario shifting how schools provide supports

O’Connor said while it’s great that the university has hired more counsellors, its model of care isn’t working.

“We have a proposed model for a health care system we’d like to see implemented within the University of Ottawa,” she added. “We’d like to see them meet with us and actually implement institutional changes.”

The University of Ottawa declined an interview with Global News for this story.

“I really want to see change in this school and how the institution handles mental illness and their approach to how they treat it and how they address it,” Gush said.

“We shouldn’t have any more student deaths. This is unacceptable.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

If you or a loved one has mental health issues, you can contact the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566 or Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.

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