Students call for more mental health supports after death at U of O

University of Ottawa students are calling for compassion and more resources from the school after a notice went out that a fourth student has died in 2019.

Students say there are long waits for mental health services

Dr. Melissa Forgie, vice dean of undergraduate medical education, said it was important to be transparent with students as they discussed a recent suicide on campus. (Pierre-Paul Couture/CBC)

University of Ottawa students are calling for compassion and more resources from the school after a student recently died by suicide.

The medical faculty offered counselling services to its students Monday afternoon, following an email announcement this weekend.

Dr. Melissa Forgie, vice dean of undergraduate medical education, tearfully embraced students as they gathered in an auditorium in Roger-Guindon Hall.

"Really it's a big family that's grieving. This has shaken our students and the faculty to the core," she said.

Forgie said the medical faculty is required to have mandatory wellness checks and counsellors to support their students, but this death has raised questions over whether that's enough.

"We have lots of resources. Clearly we don't have it right. I don't think we have it right in health care. There's a stigma attached to mental health issues."

Long waits a problem, students say

Maxime Lê, a masters student in communications with a specialization in public health, said the university's notifications about student deaths have been left students cold. There have been four death notifications this calendar year.

"The tone was just cold. It told us to just take care of ourselves," Lê said.

"If [the university] is telling us to take care of ourselves it means that it's not going to take care of us. It really shocked me and that's why I wanted to speak out."

Maxime Lê, a University of Ottawa student, says students have had issues with months-long waits in accessing mental health services. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Lê is one of the organizers of a student rally to call for more mental health resources because he says it takes months of waiting to get help.

"They feel abandoned. Sure, you have that call, but when they call you [back] three months later, it may be too late," he said.

Natasha-Lyne Roy, a member of the University of Ottawa Student Union, said she sought private therapy when faced with the wait.

"I don't think we should wait until someone's life is in danger before acting urgently. We should take it as seriously as someone who broke a bone," she said. 

She wants to see resources to prevent burnout and depression and help cope with the anxiety of student life.

Counsellors added in Sept.

Students voted to increase their fees in April to cover the cost of additional counselling services.

The university matched the amount and a total of eight counsellors have been added to Student Academic Success Services in September, according to the administration. They have seen a spike in demand for those services.

Michel Guilbeault, vice-president of student services for the university, said students can drop in to see counsellors immediately but there are waits in the wider health system.

"There is a shortage of psychologists in the region. It may be for psychiatric help. That's more the medical field. That's where we're seeing a lot of the wait times," he said.

Michel Guilbeault, vice-president of student services, say the University of Ottawa is working to improve mental health services for its community. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Guilbeault said the university is facing the same trends as wider society. While he confirmed there have been four death notices sent to students in the last year, he said the university does not comment on cause of death.

"The university is a microcosm of society. There is a crisis with youth suicide, 24 per cent of all death for 15-24 [year olds], so yeah, I would say it's a big problem," he said.

"One death is one death too many on this campus and we're trying to take steps to better support our community."

Guilbeault said the university is training students and staff to recognize they need help as well as empowering them with self-care techniques.

Need help? Here are some mental health resources:

With files from Adrian Harewood and Radio-Canada's Yasmine Mehdi