Taking Action on Student Mental Health

Thursday, March 15, 2018
by Feridun Hamdullahpur

This column also appears on the Insight page of today’s Waterloo Region Record.

student mental health forum and action

Millions of Canadians, including celebrities, sports teams, governments and universities, made it a point to show their support for people struggling with mental health challenges at the end of January.

Hitting the retweet button is an easy way for any of us to show our support for mental health wellness. It is a lot harder when we're asked to do more than click a button.

The conversation about mental health in our community extends well beyond one day in the middle of winter.

During the thorough work of the President's Advisory Committee on Student Mental Health over the past year, the committee explored the complex issue of student wellness on campus. As the committee's work progressed our students had their voices heard.

I hear their voices. I hear their concerns. And, I hear their ideas.

As the President's Advisory Committee has said in its report — talk needs to turn to action. That's why we're starting to implement the recommendations contained in the committee's report on improving student mental health.

As the committee's report has recommended to support our growing student community, we are starting the process to hire more mental health professionals, providing students with the access to the support they need.

The actions we take cannot simply be limited to counselling support. The recommendations I received from the committee are a wide ranging, thoughtful collection of ideas that will help us reshape the student experience at Waterloo and equip our faculty and staff to identify and respond to student mental health challenges.

Educators at every level understand that for students to achieve their potential, they must feel well. We cannot let the demands of life outweigh the need for our students to experience the enriching and fulfilling experience I know Waterloo can provide for them.

When faced with challenges we naturally fall back on our strengths. I am honoured that Prof. John Hirdes accepted my invitation to lead the implementation team to help us move from talk to action. As the chair of an international research network of excellence in mental health there is nobody better positioned to guide this work.

Across the world, schools, colleges and universities are facing similar challenges. Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of the University of Reading in the U.K. recently told Times Higher Education that "we could spend a lot of time agonizing about the why of all this — I'm actually more interested in what we do to enable our students to cope well."

While I agree that action is what will help our students most, I also believe that we need to do more than help students cope. We want to make the changes that enable our students to flourish while at this great institution.

That means that while we work to implement the recommendations we shared this week, we also need to recognize that our students will benefit with the support of our entire community. We are fortunate to have many alumni locally and around the world who can help build a bridge for our students as they think about the transition to life after Waterloo.

It will require the commitment and effort of our families, friends, teachers, coaches, communities, employers and governments to continue to support those in need as well as the valued work of mental health professionals who cannot solve these challenges on their own.

It will take all of us working together with empathy, compassion and courage to shine a light and to keep the conversation going.