Coming to grips with mental health issues
The tragic deaths of several students recently have underscored the urgent need for Queen’s and its peer institutions to find answers to questions of student mental health, questions for which there are no easy answers.
Normally my column in the QAR is tied to the cover story or the theme of the issue – in this case women in engineering, where Queen’s continues to be a national leader in moving the engineering profession toward greater gender equality. While we still have some distance to go, the trends are in the right direction, and continue to improve under Dean Kimberley Woodhouse’s strong leadership.
Circumstances dictate, however, that I focus this column on a different and sadder topic. It has been a difficult year for the Queen’s community. Recent national media coverage of a number of tragic student deaths on and off campus has prompted some of you to ask: What’s happening at Queen’s? And how is the University responding?
The loss of any member of our community affects us all: students, faculty, staff and alumni.
The short answer is that our tight-knit, supportive community is reeling from these latest tragedies, but Queen’s has and will continue to help people deal with their shock, grief, and sadness. The loss of any member of our community affects us all: students, faculty, staff and alumni.
The longer answer is much more complicated. It is one that I believe should commit us to finding-long term solutions to what is a serious, widespread, and often hidden problem afflicting not only post-secondary campuses across the country, but society in general.
We know that one in four young Canadians of university or college age experiences serious stress, anxiety, depression or other symptoms of mental illness. In extreme cases, as has happened at Queen’s this year (and at other universities), this may result in acts of self-harm or even suicide.
It is not entirely clear why today’s students feel such elevated levels of stress and anxiety, though various reasons have been adduced – from higher expectations of their own performance, pressures to succeed, multiple draws on time (including the Internet), cyber-bullying, and lack of preparation for the time-management required in university. In our increasingly diverse student population, we must pay particular attention to risk factors for mental health such as social marginalization and isolation. What is clear is that a great deal of the stigma that has long been attached to mental health remains today, and it is an impediment both to understanding and providing assistance.
I have been personally engaged on this issue for more than a year, since the death of first-year Arts and Science student Jack Windeler in March 2010. My wife Julie (herself a former mental health administrator) and I both take a strong interest in the health and well being of Queen’s students, faculty, and staff. The issue hits close to home as both of us have family relations who at one time or another have suffered from depression or schizophrenia. I dare say that anyone reading this article has family members or friends who have exhibited some form of mental disorder.
Given the year’s events, I recently agreed, with Provost Robert Silverman and Associate V-P and Dean of Student Affairs John Pierce, that we need to step-up our efforts both to understand mental health issues on campus and improve our front-line services, which have been very much stretched, this past year in particular. Dean Pierce and his team are already hard at work developing new strategies for enhancing knowledge among our community of where to turn for help, and many outside agencies have offered their assistance as we move ahead. Earlier this year, Queen’s Marketing and Communications worked with Eric Windeler, Com‘81, Jack’s father, to produce a video on mental health that has been taken up by other campuses, and
I have been speaking publicly on the topic in a number of venues, including most recently the spring meeting of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.
I will be exploring ways to leverage these and other initiatives and to give mental health issues higher prominence on campus and improve mental health care in all its dimensions – including mental health education. Only that will help remove the stigma and encourage those who may be suffering to reach out, while also prompting their friends, roommates, dons, teaching assistants and others with whom they come into contact to watch for signs that a student or colleague may be in distress.
It has been a sad year, but I am heartened by the campus response to tragedy: the spirit of our students can be, at times, quite overwhelming.
It has been a sad year, but I am heartened by the campus response to tragedy: the spirit of our students can be, at times, quite overwhelming. In a very short time period they initiated a “Queen’s Loves U” day intended to raise awareness of the importance of supporting one another. They also organized a “spontaneous” sing-out to alleviate stress in Stauffer Library during exam period. These are just a few examples of the way we have come together as we grieve and look to the future.
I am also encouraged by the solidarity among my fellow university presidents and principals with respect to a call to action, and inspired by the work done by our emergency response team in Student Affairs under difficult circumstances. Here, I think, is another occasion where Queen’s can meet the challenge of national leadership.
You can read the Principal’s blog at www.queensu.ca/principal/apps/blog or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/queensprincipal.