t can sometimes feel like the final days of a semester can’t come
soon enough. Compounding that feeling, because of where the
Easter long weekend fell on the calendar this past academic year,
the final exam period at the University of Guelph ended on a
Monday instead of the Friday before. Across the undergraduate
residences, advisers made extra efforts to check in with students to
see how they were doing.
“We are following up and making sure that they know we’re
still here to support them as they finish up the year,” said Patrick
Kelly, the associate director of residence life at the U of Guelph,
speaking this past spring. The 2016-17 school year had featured
extraordinary loss, spurring community members to stay vigilant.
Four U of Guelph students took their own lives; two of the suicides occurred in student residences.
The tragedies began when a first-year arts student was found dead in
her dorm room in Prairie Hall, part of the university’s South Residence,
on November 1. U of Guelph president Franco Vaccarino issued a news
release the same day. “As a community, there is no greater struggle than
losing one of our own, and we will ensure that students affected by this
tragedy receive support and assistance,” he said. The news release also
pointed students and employees to the university’s student counselling
services, its student support network, the faculty and staff employee assistance program, its multi-faith resource team, as well as the province’s
Good2Talk helpline for postsecondary students.
Later that semester, on December 10, during the final exam period,
a first-year commerce student died by suicide in Lennox-Addington Hall.
“We’re reminded once again how fragile life is,” Dr. Vaccarino said in a
news release. “We must reach out and come together as a community to
support the family and friends of this student and one another in this time
So went a harrowing school year that didn’t seem to let up. The month
after—on January 7, the Saturday before students returned to classes from
winter break—a first-year marine and freshwater biology student took
his own life. Days later, on January 19, a 22-year-old fourth-year physics
student died by suicide.
To be sure, student suicide is a tragedy that every university will face
at one time or another, and U of Guelph should not be seen in any way
as an outlier. Indeed, suicide and mental illness are issues that affect all
of the four student deaths, only the two that occurred on campus were
documented in university press releases. Neither press release mentioned
the cause of death, but students or other interested parties could easily
find that information through a Google search online. This led to a peti-
tion by master of public health student Connie Ly criticizing the univer-
sity’s “brief, generic” statements and the administration’s apparent lack of
transparency on mental health funding and infrastructure. The petition,
titled “Guelph: Stop Losing Students to Mental Illness,” garnered close to
Alison Burnett, a registered nurse who is U of Guelph’s director of
student wellness, acknowledges that anger is part of the grieving process.
But, she says that it is university protocol to let families take the lead on
what kind of information is released publicly to the campus community,
including the student’s name and cause of death. None of the families
consented to having that information released.
“We’ve had students die for a variety of reasons. And our first concern
is being respectful of the family and their wishes and desires,” she says.
It’s a delicate balance between supporting the campus community as it
moves through grief and honouring the deceased’s family wishes. This
can make it hard for students to make peace with what can feel like a lack
“There’s a lot of ambiguity, people trying to fill in answers to what
happened—and rumours,” says associate residence life director Patrick
Kelly, who has been working with Ms. Burnett on student wellness ini-
tiatives in the residences. “We really want to respect the family’s wishes
of the information that comes out. That adds to people feeling unsure of
what happened, and I think that can be frightening for individuals.”
Ms. Burnett says the student petition raised valid concerns that high-
light where the university can do a better job at communicating its activ-
ities. “Some of the things they were alluding to [in the petition], some of
those conversations are happening and have been happening,” she says.
“But if they don’t know about it, then we’re not doing our job getting that
information out to students.”
The petition led the university to revisit U of Guelph’s mental health
framework and consider its gaps—particularly with respect to student en-
gagement. The university is also in the process of creating a priority plan
document that will include a mechanism inviting community feedback.
Right from the beginning of the 2016-17 academic year, Ms. Burnett
says she noticed a marked change in the campus atmosphere around mental health. “Many students were accessing counselling support much earlier in the term, which is something we hadn’t seen in the past,” she recalls.
Usually, Ms. Burnett and her staff would see an uptick in students
accessing counselling services later in the semester, as coursework and
midterms picked up. “That was new for us and gave us pause to reposition
how we deliver services a little bit, and recognize that we needed to make
some changes there.”
The suicides, she said, made for a very challenging year. “It’s definitely
had an impact overall on campus, in terms of how people were feeling …
and the burden of stress that people were carrying.”