Winter term at the University of Saskatchewan began in a tragic and unprecedented way this year. On the afternoon of Jan. 3, the first day of classes for most colleges, students and staff alike received notification on PAWS that a student had died.
This was the first time that an alert regarding a student death has been sent out to campus. Sent by Patti McDougall, vice-provost of teaching, learning and student experience, the notification was brief, providing no further details but to orient students and staff to the university’s mental-health resources.
Just two days after the campus-wide alert was released, U of S law students were notified via email by Martin Phillipson, dean of the College of Law, that another student had died. Similarly to McDougall, Phillipson extended information to students on accessing the necessary supports, should they need them.
While the Sheaf cannot confirm the nature of the deaths, it is alleged that both students died by suicide. Although the deaths were isolated cases, they, along with the ever-growing number of students that use the university’s mental-health resources, have opened up conversations surrounding the efficacy of these services and the extent the student voice has in saying how they operate.
Each year, the number of students who access the mental-health resources at the U of S increases. According to recent data collected by Student Affairs and Outreach, counselling appointments have increased dramatically in the last two years. The fall terms of 2016, 2017 and 2018 saw 1100, 1300 and 1800 appointments booked, respectively.
The number of students registering with Access and Equity Services is growing as well, with nine per cent of the 22,400 students on campus this year registered, which amounts to more than 2,000. Under current enrollment projections, 6,000 of 28,000 students will be registered with AES by 2025. Currently, 75 per cent of students registered with AES live with hidden disabilities, with anxiety and depression being two of the most common.
The four key indicators that we’re focused on include access to a wider range of resources, being able to deliver the right support at the right time, the timeliness of service and the quality of service.”—Patti McDougall, vice-provost of teaching, learning and student experience
With an ever-increasing portion of the student body accessing the services provided by the university, the U of S seeks out feedback for their mental-health programming. McDougall says that her department looks to student feedback as one of the main ways to gauge the efficacy of their services.
“Methodologically, one of the best ways [to measure efficacy] is by surveying students. We’re collecting data on an ongoing basis when people are accessing those services,” McDougall said. “The four key indicators that we’re focused on include access to a wider range of resources, being able to deliver the right support at the right time, the timeliness of service and the quality of service. Timeliness and quality — those are the benchmarks that I’m asking for.”
In addition to surveying students who use services in the Student Wellness Centre, McDougall’s team also consults student leadership, like the U of S Students’ Union and the Graduate Students’ Association.
Following the campus-wide notification of the first student death, Naheda Sahtout, president of the GSA, says she was in “immediate contact” with McDougall’s department. However, Rose Wu, USSU vice-president student affairs, says she was not contacted following the death.
Although generally satisfied with the resources available to students for their mental health, Sahtout says that student leaders play an important role in the well-being of their constituents.
“As the population of students grows, the needs change. There is always going to be room for improvement,” Sahtout said. “In the current time, what we offer is good. The GSA’s role — and the USSU’s — is to encourage our students to use these resources… There [are] always going to be unique cases. That’s when the USSU and GSA play a big role, identifying those specific issues.”
Should students feel unsatisfied with the current resources, student-run organizations like the USSU and the GSA can help make their concerns heard. As Sahtout indicated, as the governing bodies for undergraduate and graduate students, the USSU and the GSA are frequently involved in conversations with senior administration regarding programming, mental-health programming included, that impacts the students they represent.
In addition to the USSU and the GSA, McDougall’s team engages with culture-specific mental-health programming found in centres like the International Student and Study Abroad Centre and the Aboriginal Students’ Centre.
Now, perhaps more than ever, the student voice matters in conversations revolving around the resources at the SWC. This importance was not only brought about by the aftermath of the students’ deaths but also through recent funding changes.
As the population of students grows, the needs change. There is always going to be room for improvement.”—Naheda Sahtout, Graduate Students’ Association president
Forecasting the consistently growing numbers of students using the university’s mental-health programming, the administration has already taken steps to address the future demand for services offered through the SWC. Returning students likely have noticed that the Student Wellness and Services fee has increased dramatically from $15 per term in the previous academic year to the current $45 per term. This is the first time the fee has been raised in over 20 years.
This year, McDougall estimates that $1,000,000 will be generated by the fee increase and says that it will all be funnelled back into the pay of staff at the SWC, supporting student outreach, and potentially, extending the hours of the SWC beyond 4:30 p.m. on weekdays. So while most of the revenue will go to current operating costs, McDougall reveals that there is room for future changes to the system.
Ultimately, McDougall sees the current programming changing not just in terms of the resources provided but also in her department’s guiding principles for their operations.
“Our wellness strategy, which many people including students worked on, is shifting from putting all our resources into intervention — which we have done for a long time — [to] shifting some of that to promotion and prevention,” McDougall said. “That is something that I think is going to help us. I don’t know if it’s under the category of being better or getting better, but it’s the right approach.”
For Wu, the direction in which to take mentalhealth resources at the U of S is a conversation that all students can participate in.
“I think they definitely do care [about] the student voice,” Wu said. “They do ask us for [our] opinion, and we try to give them the student voice. It would be hard to implement something without having the student input.”
If you, or a friend, require any urgent or nonurgent mental-health care, do not hesitate to contact the Student Wellness Centre. Appointments can be made by visiting the centre on the third and fourth floors of the Place Riel Student Centre or by calling them at 306-966-5768. For any further information regarding professional assistance, mental well-being tips or other resources, head to students.usask.ca and look under the “health” tab.
Tanner Bayne / News Editor
Graphic: Jaymie Stachyruk / Graphics Editor