The committee is “designed to see what more we as a university can
do to support people who may be struggling,” says Dr. Hamdullahpur in
a written statement to University Affairs. There will be opportunities for
the university community to provide feedback to the committee before a
report is released this fall.
“If recent tragedies at universities and elsewhere have taught us
anything, it is that we need to have these conversations early and we
need to have them often. For universities in general, that means start-
ing the conversation the first day a student arrives and ensuring that the
conversation continues on some level for the rest of their time here,”
Dr. Hamdullahpur says. “My office has also received countless offers of
advice and support with widespread agreement that this is an important
topic that needs to be addressed by not just our campus, but by society
Dr. Hamdullapur says he chose to respond publicly to Mr. Graham’s
death in March because, as he put it, “after our recent tragedy, it became
clear that people in our community wanted to talk about mental health
issues, including the issue of suicide.” Mr. Graham’s family provided stu-
dents and members of the university administration with separate state-
ments that were read on their behalf at a campus vigil honouring the two
students who ended their lives.
the tragedy of student suicide is likely even more widespread than recent events suggest. In the spring of 2016, 41 Canadian postsecondary
institutions participated in the American College Health Association’s
National College Health Assessment, with 43,780 surveys completed
by students on these campuses. Among the findings, nearly 45 percent
reported, in the past 12 months, having felt “so depressed that it was difficult to function.” Also in the past 12 months, 2. 1 percent of students said
they had attempted suicide—a total of 905 respondents.
More generally, according to Statistics Canada, suicide is the sec-
ond-leading cause of death, after accidents, for people aged 24 and under.
The suicide rate is over three times higher for men than women. “Wom-
The events prompted new collaborations between U of Guelph and
its community partners. The local hospital and the Guelph chapter of the
Canadian Mental Health Association collaborated with the university on
health promotion and crisis prevention initiatives.
However, it seems the public frequently demands immediate solutions. “People often jump very quickly to treatment. ‘How many counsellors do you have? If you had more counselling, would some of this
have been averted?’” Ms. Burnett recounts. During a crisis, that’s where
the focus lies.
“But that’s only one piece of it,” she says. “The longer-term benefits
of health prevention and promotion, looking at more systemic issues, are
where we should be focusing some resources.” Effective mental health
care consists of a broad spectrum of supports—like a supportive community willing to have frank conversations, or providing people with the
tools and skills to build resiliency and cope with stress—than the stuff
that seems most obviously quantifiable, she notes.
less than an hour’s drive from Guelph, at the University of Waterloo, two
other students died by suicide in the span of three months. On January 12,
an 18-year-old woman took her life in Beck Hall at UW Place, a student
residence. Then, on March 20, 19-year-old Chase Christopher Graham
died by suicide, also at UW Place. Members of the family were quoted in
local media referencing their son’s death—the university did not release
The news of the second death reached students throughout that day.
When she heard, Nicole St. Clair, a second-year political science student,
says she was frustrated by how mental health issues are often “slipped
under the rug or kind of ignored or stigmatized.” That night, she posted
an online petition calling for the university to change its approach to
mental health. It has since received 15,000 signatures.
“I was not expecting this,” says Ms. St. Clair of the huge response. One
week later, she and other students met with the university administration
to discuss their concerns.
Around the same time, U of Waterloo president Feridun Hamdullahpur released several public statements supporting student mental health
on campus. And, following input from faculty, staff, students and members of the community, he announced the creation of the President’s
Advisory Committee on Student Mental Health.
“If recent tragedies at universities
and elsewhere have taught us
anything, it is that
we need to have these conversations
early and we need to have them often.”