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Queen's University

Focusing on mental health

As printed in The Kingston Whig-Standard, Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Last month, I announced the creation of the Principal's Commission on Mental Health, chaired by Dr. David Walker, former dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences.

I've been asked a few times why this was created, what it is supposed to do, and how its members were chosen.

The establishment of the commission is easy to explain. As most readers will know, Queen's suffered a terrible series of tragedies between March 2010 and April 2011, in which several students died, some by suicide. At the same time, it was also becoming clear that the hard-working and dedicated staff at Health, Counseling and Disability Services were being overwhelmed by students in need of aid.

I had been somewhat sensitized to mental health issues because my wife Julie worked for the Alberta Mental Health Commission during our time in Alberta. Although she works in a different area now, she remains an indefatigable champion for the improvement of mental health care.

Julie and I got to know Eric Windeler and Sandra Hanington, the father and mother of Jack Windeler, the first-year student who took his own life in late March 2010. Eric has taken an extended leave from his job in the financial sector to found The Jack Project, which has attracted considerable attention (most recently in the Globe and Mail and Toronto Life), along with similar parental initiatives elsewhere in the country. Eric and Sandra's strength and resolve in the midst of grief, and their determination to take action to improve support for youth mental health, has been nothing short of inspirational.

I was also discovering that Queen's was not alone in having mental health challenges on and off campus. Other universities and colleges (and indeed high schools) are facing the same issues. The statistics are clear and worrying: one in four young people from age 14 to 25 will experience some level of mental disorder: the gamut is a wide one, including depression, anxiety and stress to serious bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. One in 10,000 will attempt suicide, which is the leading cause of death in that age range apart from accidents.

We should be able to talk about mental health in the same way 
we talk of the flu, about cancer, or about diabetes.

After speaking at the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada last spring and at a special conference on mental health run by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities and the Council of Ontario Universities last fall, I concluded that all of us who teach and administrate at universities understood too little about what was driving this increasing manifestation of mental health problems.

At about the same time, I spoke with an alumnus who had experienced some serious mental health issues while attending Queen's, and took up a suggestion that I consider empanelling a high-level commission. Cornell University, a partner institution through the Queen's School of Business, did something similar after a terrible year in which several students died by suicide a few years ago.

The commission, just launched, has a very high-level brief. Queen's has had a mental health working group in place since 2007 that deals with on-the- ground initiatives, such as awareness and training, in conjunction with other health and wellness-related working groups (including one on alcohol). The commission will not duplicate this work, but rather will examine best practices at other institutions, examine our own practices, consult widely with local psychological, medical and psychiatric professionals, and--perhaps most important--provide a forum in which people can discuss a subject that for too long has remained in the shadows.

Mental health stigma is an especially important area on university campuses -- those in distress must feel that they can speak with peers or counsellors or staff members without fear of being labelled and judged. We should be able to talk about mental health in the same way we talk of the flu, about cancer, or about diabetes.

The membership of the commission has been kept deliberately small, and no one on it is a mental health professional. That is by design. In addition to Dr. Walker, the commission's other four members, including one student, are drawn from different parts of the university. There has been no attempt to represent every possible constituency. We wanted sympathetic and wise individuals who could listen carefully, look closely, and consult widely with many who are professionals, with community members and with many who have suffered from mental health disorders.

Since the announcement of the commission, several individuals and agencies have come forward wishing to speak with the commission. I remain grateful to the greater Kingston community's interest, empathy and willingness to help support our students. I will not forget the generosity of local psychologists and PhD students who volunteered to take referrals last spring to ensure student demand for counselling could be met as we neared the end of a difficult academic year.

The commission will report in April and provide recommendations for the university to pursue. I await the report with great anticipation. In the meantime, I will be speaking about student mental health in a number of venues during the coming months.

Kingston, Ontario, Canada. K7L 3N6. 613.533.2000