University of Waterloo commits $1.2M to hire more counsellors

The University of Waterloo is committing $1.2 million to hire additional mental health counsellors, satisfying one recommendation made in a report released Monday by the president advisory committee on student mental health.

Funding follows protests on campus and a report on student mental health

Students protested and walked out of class, asking for more counsellors on Mar. 8, 2018. (Flora Pan/CBC)

The University of Waterloo is committing $1.2 million to hire additional mental health counsellors, after students called for better services on campus and one of their peers died by suicide earlier this month. 

The president advisory committee on student mental health released its final report Monday afternoon, issuing 36 recommendations for the school to implement in order to address concerns. 

"We are going to go through each and every one of those recommendations and prioritize them," said Feridun Hamdullahpur, president at the University of Waterloo.
Feridun Hamdullahpur, the president of the University of Waterloo, said the school will prioritize two of the recommendations in the report immediately. (Andrea Bellemare/CBC)

Changing the ratio 

Hamdullahpur said the university has already begun to take action with two of the recommendations that "didn't need further elaboration or reviews." 

The first is to establish an implementation committee to "assess process and impact," and the second is add more mental health counsellors on campus. 

"Even though we have a good number of counsellors here, we thought that we'll further help our students who are going through some sort of mental health needs or challenges," he said.  

The report recommended the university maintains the ratio of having 1 full-time equivalent counsellor or psychologist for every 1,000 students. 

Currently, the school has 31,380 undergraduate students and 5,290 graduate students, with 22 full-time equivalent counselling services staff and 2 full-time equivalent psychiatrists.

This brings the ratio to approximately 1 staff person serving every 1554 students. 
Many students were in tears at the walkout. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Student deaths as a push 

The advisory committee on student mental health was put together by Hamdullahpur in March 2017, following the deaths of two other students, also by suicide. 

Hamdullahpur said the deaths were only "one of the reason" why the committee was formed, but not "the only reason." 

"I have been reviewing and talking about mental health for the entire campus, including staff," he said.

"But last year's event was the last thing that made me accelerate this process...so we can put a really action-oriented plan together." 

"It wasn't just triggered by those incidents. It had been an ongoing review," Hamdullahpur told CBC News.
Sarah Welton said she was "happy" with some of the recommendations, but also "disappointed" with the "obscured language" and lack of timelines in the report. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Advocates 'disappointed' with no 'associated timelines' 

Sarah Welton, a fourth-year student and one of the people who organized the "Waterloo Walkout" protest last week, said she was "really happy" to see some of the recommendations mentioned in the report, such as changing exam schedules, increasing mental health training for professors and adding more counsellors. 

But Welton said she's also "concerned" with the obscured language in the report, which "seems to be not as clear as it could be." 

"After a year of sitting on this and hyping up this report, I'm disappointed to see that there's not a lot of actionable specifics, a real plan of action, or any associated timelines on the things they do mention," she said. 

Welton said she thinks there should be measures put in place to "ensure accountability from the university and the administration," while referring to another report the school released in 2012 to improve student mental health. 

"We're not really sure if we saw any evidence of that report being implemented," she said. 

Welton said with "so much time" having been spent on the recent report released Monday, she wants to make sure the school is held accountable. 
Students who participated in the walkout on Mar. 8, 2018. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Other demands 

A student petition has also been circulating on campus, demanding for unlimited counselling sessions from the university.

Welton said that demand came from concerns surrounding the limited number of sessions students are entitled to have with university counselling staff.

"It's kind of disappointing to hear students who may still need help being turned away because they've reached an arbitrary limit set by the administration and management at counselling services," she said. 

Hamdullahpur said that is something the university will look into, along with the other 36 recommendations. 

"I don't have the details of what it means to have unlimited access, but we'll look at those and see how effective we can meet their needs," he said.  

Other recommendations mentioned in the report includes the university signing onto the Okanagan Charter, developing a collaborative research program on mental health and joining provincial advocacy efforts. 

But for now, Hamdullahpur said they will implement the two prioritized recommendations first. 

"They're happening as we speak," he said.  

"The budget is in place. Counselling services are working on a hiring strategy...and post these positions asap." 

About the Author

Peggy Lam

Reporter

Peggy is a reporter and editor based in Kitchener-Waterloo. Prior to landing in KW, she has worked in Beijing, Vancouver, Toronto, Winnipeg and St. John's, covering daily news and current affairs. Got a story idea? Email her at peggy.lam@cbc.ca or tweet her @peggylam_