New Brunswick

STU students donate 300K to improve on-campus mental health services

St. Thomas University in Fredericton has received a $300,000 donation to improve access to on-campus mental health services and programming.

Students held a referendum and voted in favour of raising fees to fund better services and programming

St. Thomas University students donated $300,000 to the school to improve mental health services and programming. (CBC)

St. Thomas University in Fredericton has received a $300,000 donation to improve access to on-campus mental health services and programming.

The donation came from an unlikely source: the students.

The student body held a referendum last year and voted overwhelmingly in favour of raising fees — a response to a growing concern among students over a lack of mental health support on campus.

"It's sort of unusual for students to vote by referendum to raise their own fees in a way, but it just shows how important this issue is for students and how much students recognize that they need the support," director of student services Brock Richardson told Shift New Brunswick.

STU student Taylor Cook, who struggled with depression after the sudden death of her grandmother, said the donation for improved services was "highly needed" and "a huge step forward."

Cook said time with a STU counsellor is in high demand and some students would use the mental health services at the neighbouring University of New Brunswick.

Richardson said the students recognized how a mental health issue could pop up unexpectedly for anyone. Cook is living proof.

The student athlete, who plays for the university's women's hockey team, said her battle with mental health affected both her academics and athletics.

"The biggest thing for me was that I didn't want to be at the rink, and for me that's always been my getaway, my safe place," said Cook, who was eventually diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.

Cook said many students who are experiencing mental health issues have a hard time sharing their feelings, but she took the opposite approach while working through her struggles. She wrote about her issues online and championed a more open conversation around mental illness.

A crowd of St. Thomas University students prepare to take part on Shinerama day to raise money for cystic fibrosis. The STU student body overwhelmingly voted in favour of raising fees to fund better on-campus mental health services. (CBC)

Richardson said an advisory council of staff, professors and students was established to allocate funding and improve on-campus services and programming. The focus will be on proactive measures, including programs to raise awareness and education and to reduce stigma.

Richardson also said the council is considering how to develop coping skills among the student body.

He said the university doesn't have a precise figure of how many students need mental health support — they're looking beyond the mere number of students requesting counselling sessions — so they joined a large mental health survey of Canadian universities.

The results will be released in a few weeks, he said.

"We know that depression and anxiety are the two biggest issues by far, but what's underneath that? Are students feeling lonely? Are students struggling to sleep well, to eat well, to be active and healthy?" he said.

Richardson said a better understanding of the issues will allow the university to improve its service delivery.

With files from Shift New Brunswick