Q&A Panel on Mental Health: Recap

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Tatiana Morand
Communications Assistant
Fri, 10/27/2017 - 11:45

Members of the President's Advisory Committee on Student Mental Health (PAC-SMH) provided updates and tackled tough questions at the Q&A Panel on Mental Health on October 24 as part of Feds Annual General Meeting and Mental Health Wellness Day.

University of Waterloo President Feridun Hamdullahpur provided opening remarks and began the discussion about why the panel was created.

President Hamdullahpur speaking at Panel on Mental Health“This is a subject that is very close to me personally, and that is, I believe, a very important subject for our institution,” Hamdullahpur said. “This is what I am really grateful for, that now we can openly talk about a) mental health and b) about how it’s affecting our students.”

When we talk openly about mental health, we create a better understanding of mental health and a more supportive campus environment, he said.

Hamdullahpur applauded Counselling Services and Health Services for providing help and support, but said we need to take that support to another level, and that was why the PAC-SMH was formed.

“[The PAC-SMH committee has] made fantastic progress,” he said, adding that their final report with suggestions and recommendations will appear in January. “Our work is not done, it is continuing, but getting that report will be a huge step in the right direction.”

Associate Provost of Students Chris Read served as moderator for the panel. He explained that the panel was comprised of representatives from each of the five supporting panels: Mental Health Experts, Student Services, Community Partners, Academics, and Student Experience.

Director of Campus Wellness Walter Mittlestaedt provided an introduction and overview for the discussion.

“The committee first met in May to discuss a shared concern about student mental health, and the conditions that lead some individuals into more difficult situations on campus,” said Mittlestaedt.

Over 100 different people are currently involved with the panels or the committee, and have been generating research and information to provide the best solutions possible.

Representing the Mental Health Experts panel was Tracy Morgan from Counselling Services.

“There continues to be really high demand for mental health services across campus,” with a significant increase from the previous year, said Morgan.

The panel has found that many students don’t know what services are available, and that different points in the term have different stress points that need to be recognized, particularly around co-op applications and moving times, Morgan said.

“One of the themes that has come up is trying to provide a little more information about the different kinds of services and supports that are available to students,” said Morgan.

The panel discovered that although a breadth of services are currently available, there is a need to streamline services so that students don’t have to visit multiple spots on campus. Different ways to manage wait lists and using pro-active mental health promotion are also being explored, she said.

Updates from the Academic panel were provided by Heidi Englehart.

“Not all stress is bad,” she said. “We are talking about too much stress or distress.”

The Academic panel has focused on exploring how programs could be modified and students better supported without compromising academic integrity. They’re also considering such questions as how course design could better support wellness and success, and if instructors should be required to take mental health training.

“Some of our programs pride themselves in being challenging and intense; this culture may be difficult to change,” she said.

Speaking on behalf of the Community Partners panel, Dr. Tom Ruttan described their findings, challenges and next steps.

“One of the things that came out for us really early on was that we are all one community,” said Ruttan.

He said that focusing on the community as a whole, to develop a network for students, is key. The panel is exploring how community resources can be maximized in coordination with campus resources, and what gaps exist not just in resources, but also in communication about mental health services available both on and off campus.

One of the challenges he described was that even with available resources and awareness, students may still choose not to or not want to access support, whether psychological or academic.

Emma McKay, a graduate student and member of the Student Experience panel, outlined many of the challenges their panel has faced so far, from gathering information, conducting interviews, challenges with ethics, limited time, no funding, and members unable to continue on the panel due to personal stresses.

McKay began by drawing attention to the ways in which many students feel that they’ve been sidelined by the University.

“I want to highlight that those people on campus are experiencing neglect from the people who invited them here: the administration,” said McKay. The hope is to create concrete change through collaboration, they added.

McKay also mentioned that their panel features no mental health experts, and instead is composed solely of students. The panel focuses on gathering experience-based information from students through surveys and interviews, and conducting literature reviews to see what other similar projects to improve mental health have done, while considering the unique nature of studying at Waterloo.

McKay also stressed the need to capture the authentic student voice by getting input from marginalized student groups in order to create a sustainable community at Waterloo.

Finally, Saad Ahmad discussed the findings from the Student Services panel.

“There is a strong perception that academics and mental wellbeing are in competition,” Ahmad said. “We want to make sure that when you’re at University of Waterloo that you don’t have to give up your mental wellbeing to succeed academically – they should go hand in hand.”

The panel found that services want to improve upon existing collaboration, and that both staff and students want more mental health training, but are unclear on what training is beneficial to specific roles.

“When looking at this information, what we noticed there is a lack of shared value in mental health care,” Ahmad said. “What we need from the University is a set of shared values at the highest level, and then have a coordinated response from all staff and student services to proceed on how to respond to students.”

A surprising discovery was that there is a difference between what student services are offered and what students feel are available, Ahmad said. He discussed the challenges surrounding simply finding information on what services are available, and conversely, the challenges of how to share that information widely.

This panel is also looking at questions including what does a culture of compassion, resilience and appropriate mental health look like.

“What does “enough capacity” look like?” he asked. “Is it adding more health care practitioners for mental health, is it amplifying the services that we already have, or is it moving forward with an approach that targets mental health before it become a larger issue in individuals.”

One theme that consistently emerged in their research was a perception that UWaterloo is inarticulate on its commitment to care, he said.

“But as we did our research, we did see and our panel does believe that there is a commitment to care and there is compassion, but the University does need to articulate that commitment better to staff and students,” Ahmad said. “We need to continue to move forward with that culture of compassion.”

It’s important to remember that the PAC-SMH is still in the stages of gathering information. The panels will be finalizing their reports later this year in order to contribute their findings and recommendations directly to President Hamdallahpur.