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In wake of student deaths, Western and Fanshawe see 'growing demand' for mental health services

The sudden death of two Western University students within the space of a few weeks is highlighting the importance of on-campus services — including counselling — for students dealing with stress and mental health issues.

'The kids are under a pressure that they don't reveal,' says father who lost son to suicide

Rick Ezekiel is Western University's director of student experience. (YouTube)

The sudden death of two Western University students within the space of a few weeks is highlighting the importance of on-campus services — including counselling — for students dealing with stress and mental health issues.

On Nov. 9 nursing student Cara Ellen Soules died. She was 19. Brandon Papp, a 21-year-old geological sciences student, died 10 days later. 

Those deaths prompted Western to bring in partners from outside the university for extra help..  

"We don't anticipate the need is going to go down," said Rick Ezekiel, Western's senior director of student experience. "The trend across the country is that this need is going to continue to grow."

He said Western is close to completing work on a mental health strategic plan, a step he says will help administration provide a "broader understanding" of students' mental health needs. 

A draft of the plan is expected to be launched in the spring, pending approval with Western's Board of Governors and Senate.

The hope is this will help complement existing resources that include:

Ezekiel said November can be a tough stretch of the academic year, especially for new students already adjusting to university life. 

"It's a time when students have kind of started to adjust to the realities of the academic year. They might be coming off mid-term season and preparing for finals. It's often a time that presents new and additional stress."

Fanshawe faces faculty strike fallout

At Fanshawe College, students are dealing with the added stress of a compressed academic year due to a faculty strike that closed classrooms for five-weeks. Students returned to class Tuesday after the province ended the strike with back-to-work legislation. 

Heather Cummings, Fanshwe's executive director of student success, oversees student counselling at Fanshawe. 

She said they've found ways to help students through the turbulent post-strike re-entry. She said students faced "lots of fear and uncertainly" about meeting extra demands and tighter deadlines. There was also a small spike in the numbers of students seeking help in the days after the strike.

"There were quite a few students coming in but we've found now that most students have gone through all their classes and they realize that modifications were made that have allowed them to maintain the same pace of learning that they were doing before," she said.

Western University is working on a mental health strategic plan to help support students in crisis. (Dave Chidley/CBC)

Cummings said Fanshawe offers personal counselling for students in need and same-day emergency triage appointments.   

Fanshawe also has a psychiatrist on staff at its student health services department and a wellness centre with group-based supports. 

"We're trying to be proactive and help students build some skills so they are less likely to get into a mental health crisis, but obviously if they do get into a crisis, we have those supports available," she said.

Like Ezekiel at Western, Cummings said the demand for these services is growing. 

"The numbers are going up, and the severity of the mental health concerns are increasing. We are constantly reviewing our service model to see how we can meet this service demand," she said.

Cummings also said Fanshawe is finding ways to accommodate students with pre-diagnosed mental health conditions 

"What happened at Western can happen anywhere, at any institution and that's just the reality of the kind of mental health situation we'll dealing with. We're sympathetic with what [Western] is going through right now." 

What about parents?

Sam Fiorella lost his son Lucas to suicide three years ago. 

He had no idea Lucas, a first-year student at Carleton University, was suffering so badly. 

Fiorella said having services available isn't enough, because so many students don't speak about their suffering. 

"The kids are under a pressure that they don't reveal," he said. 

He believes the pressure to do well in an increasingly competitive campus environment can drive some students to extremes. 

Sam Fiorella, who lost a son to suicide, says parents have to take an active role in speaking to their kids, instead of waiting for them to speak up. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Since his son's death, Fiorella has been visiting campuses and speaking with students and administrators about suicide prevention. 

He said parents have to take an active role in speaking to their kids instead of waiting for them to say there's a problem. 

"The reality is most kids like my son will give you zero indication that there's something wrong," he said. "So many parents like myself don't discover their kids are suffering badly until we get the news that they've taken their life."