UW hires 7 more mental health staff but students say that's not enough

It's been almost five months since students walked out for better mental health services at the University of Waterloo and they're saying the school is not moving fast enough.

It's been almost five months since students walked out for better mental health services

Since the student walkout, the university says they've implemented 'several' of the recommendations published in the mental health report to enhance student wellbeing. (Flora Pan/CBC)

The University of Waterloo has hired seven additional mental health staff in response to a student walkout in March, when the suicide of a student led to a 200-person protest. 

With the seven new hires, the ratio of student to counsellor is now one to 1000, said the university.

Prior to the school's mental health report to enhance student wellbeing being released, the ratio of mental health professionals to students was one for every 1,370 students. 

The International Association of Counselling Services recommends one full time equivalent professional staff member for every 1,000 to 1,500 students.

'It's not enough' walk-out organizer say 

Kai Butterfield, a fourth-year student and organizer of the walk-out in March, said hiring seven more staff members is not enough because they want counsellors who can represent the "diverse student population" and understand "the realities" of their lives. 

"We need counsellors who represent racialized students, Indigenous and international students, students from the LGBTQ+ community and students with disabilities," Butterfield told The Morning Edition's host Craig Norris on Tuesday. 

"After five months, the university has been focused on streamlining their response to student deaths but have made very few cultural changes changes that affirm the lives of students at Waterloo," she said. 

Butterfield said she'd like to see the university focus on changing its competitive culture and bring in "innovative approaches" to community building" not just "technological innovation." 

"We believe University of Waterloo needs to re-evaluate its brand because it asks us to innovate at the cost of our mental and physical health and leads us to isolate ourselves because of the individualistic and competitive culture," she said. 

Lack of information

"To be honest, I still don't know enough about what they've actually done," said Sarah Welton, another student organizer of the walk-out. 

"It's still really disappointing to see how tight-lipped they've been over the past several months after promising that everything was going to be very transparent and open," she said. 

Welton said she and eight other students met with university administrators after the walk-out happened in March to provide a list of demands that they hoped to see. 

"The direct response was the university wasn't in the business of giving into demands, so we have no idea what they did with the issues that we did bring forward to administration," said Welton.
Sarah Welton was one of the student organizers of the walkout. She is in third-year studying literature and rhetoric. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Welton said the group didn't hear back from the school for "several months" so she reached out to the administration again for an update. ​After that, Welton said she received emails from the school "promising more action" that was also sent to the entire student body. 

She said she's also "disappointed with the implementation committee" and the lack of transparency. 

"I was hoping getting involved with that would be a lot more opened, but... it seems like they were choosing from a very select pool," she said. 

'Can't change culture overnight' 

The university's mental health report, which was released less than a week after the student walkout, contains 36 recommendations. The committee responsible for implementing the recommendations, chaired by John Hirdes, has met twice and began implementing "several" of the recommendations.

"We're starting to make progress in getting the information organized for prioritizing the different recommendations," he said.

Hirdes said the recommendations that have already been implemented include:

  • Establishing the committee itself.
  • Hiring seven additional staff.
  • Signing onto the Okanagan Charter.
  • Developing a protocol on how to deal with and communicate deaths that occur on campus. 

The remaining 32 recommendations are currently being prioritized by the committee, Hirdes said. 

"What we're doing right now is going through all the recommendations and prioritizing them," said Hirdes. 

"The recommendations that affect the largest number of students with the most substantial impact on student mental health, that are the most feasible on the short-term, are going to be our highest priority to do right away," he said. 

He said, the rest are "more complicated" and require more time. Hirdes said recommendations such as changing the exam schedule can be done in a quicker manner, but recommendations like changing the campus culture can't happen that fast. 
John Hirdes is the chair of the student mental health implementation committee at the University of Waterloo. (University of Waterloo)

"You can't change culture over night, it's a... process that requires larger buy-in and more subtle change," Hirdes said. 

Hirdes said right now the committee meets once a month, but once a subcommittee is formed they will be meeting bi-weekly in September. 

"We're dealing with summer vacation right now, so it's quite sporadic," said Hirdes. 

Hirdes said the committee also has "strong student representation," which includes representatives who are undergraduate, graduate and international students. It also has representatives from all the faculties, campus organizations and community mental health partners, he said. 

"We try to bring together all the key stakeholders from across campus to reach the campus as broadly as possible," said Hirdes.

The committee said they will be done voting on which recommendations to prioritize by September and will be implementing all 36 recommendations of the report within a two-year time frame.