Laurentian staff, students commit to continuing the conversation about mental health on campus

By Jessica Robinson, Editor-in-Chief

A month after Laurentian University’s mental health referendum did not pass among student voters, Laurentian staff and student association leaders are making it clear that they are not abandoning the fight to improve mental health services on campus.

Though over 50% of the entire student population weighed in on the referendum, only 41.58% of those students voted “yes” to an increase in student health fees of $70. Because the referendum did not pass, the fee will stay at $20 for the 2017/2018 academic year.

In the initial email explaining the referendum, the increase was described as being allocated to a variety of mental health service improvements and expansions.

Students and community members have been very vocal on and off social media, arguing both for and against the increase in fees. While some feel they already pay too much to the university, others believe that mental health needs to be a priority regardless of the cost.

Chris Mercer, Director of Student Life at Laurentian University, is well aware that school is already expensive.

“I was 29 when I paid my last student debt payment; I’m very sympathetic to what it takes to put oneself through school, the debt you end up taking on, the challenges that that creates for you going into the working world and the rest of your life,” Mercer said. “[We have to] find the right balance of services and costs.”

Mercer said that the university is “disappointed” with the results of the referendum.

“We’ve got great people in general counselling services, just not enough of them. And that’s the challenge we’re trying to reconcile,” he said.

The referendum was put together by the fee committee, made up of university staff and student association representatives, who made collective decisions about what information to share with the students.

“If there is one thing that keeps me up at night on this campus, it’s this [need to improve mental health supports on campus].” – Chris Mercer, Director of Student Life

“The decision we made [about what information to share] may not have been the right one, in hindsight,” Mercer said. “Had more information been provided and been available to students, maybe people would have felt more comfortable making a decision—or maybe people were comfortable making their decision.”

“We were trying to be concise enough that people would read through [the email], while giving enough detail that students could understand what the potential investment was related to that cost. School is expensive, and asking someone for $70 more is a lot. So how do you give enough information, that someone feels comfortable weighing in on that kind of a decision, but not so much that they get halfway down and say, what is this? I’m busy, why are you emailing me. We’ve gotten good feedback, and I hope to continue that.”

On Wednesday, March 29th, 2017, the third day of the five-day voting period, the referendum was discussed among present members at the SGA’s Annual General Meeting. There, it was explained that the $70 was intended to be put towards the hiring of four additional counsellors (which breaks down into $17.50 per new counsellor, from each student).

In a CBC Sudbury article published online on April 10, 2017, they reported that the money would have specifically gone towards hiring “a mental health prevention and education coordinator, substance abuse and addictions coordinator, crisis prevention and management co-ordinator, and a sexual violence prevention and support coordinator.”

“We did feel that putting the specific line items of cost [in the initial email] was maybe too much detail,” said Mercer, “and again, in hindsight, if what we need to learn from that is not enough detail was provided, then fair enough, we learn from that. When we have this conversation again, we approach it differently next time.”

Though the results may not have been what the university was hoping for, no one can be disappointed in the amount of student engagement the referendum incurred.

“Over 50% of the student population weighed in on this [referendum], which is totally unheard of,” said Mercer. “In a five-day voting period, we had quorum by end of day Monday.”

Many students, like Julia Kinna, a second-year social work student at Laurentian who commented on the referendum results for CBC Sudbury, expressed a desire for the fees they are already paying to be reallocated toward mental health resources.

“I’m frustrated that money is going towards something that I’m not using [like the bus pass], where it could be redirected towards saving someone’s life,” Kinna commented in the CBC Sudbury article.

When asked about the possibility of re-allocating funds instead of increasing fees, Mercer said that he’s “always open to that conversation”.

“Ultimately, the fee structure that is there is one that is in control of both students and the university, jointly. There is a fee committee that the presidents of student associations sit on. We’ve actually added some structure to that committee for next year to ensure that we are having a robust conversation. If that’s the feedback, then let’s have that conversation. There’s openness to everything,” Mercer said.

“But, I would say the qualifier to that is that anything that goes up in one place goes down in another,” he added. “We just need to be comfortable with the tradeoffs we’re making; and if we’re collectively comfortable as a community, then so be it, we make those tradeoffs.”

“We will try to take a more active approach and call for a higher level of engagement on all our parts since a referendum and its issues are far more important than social media posts and a few posters around campus.” – SGA

Mercer assured that the road moving forward has not been altered; it’s simply about the speed at which change can be effected.

“My hope now for next year is to be able to add a third counsellor. With a [passing] referendum, we would have been able to add four, with specialized services, etc. But it will be one more than we had this year, so that’s not nothing. It’s another step in the right direction,” he said.

“If there is one thing that keeps me up at night on this campus, it’s this [need to improve mental health supports on campus],” Mercer said. “We are trying to find a solution to what is an existing crisis on our campus, and on campuses across Ontario. We know what has gone on across campuses this year alone, in terms of suicides, depression. Universities maybe aren’t, at this point, built or resourced to be fully responsive to those challenges. But just because that’s not what we’ve been in the past, that doesn’t mean that’s not what we need to evolve to be, at least more of, in the future.”

“There’s always going to be a community health ecosystem that’s going to have a role to play. But, on campuses, it’s our job to be responsive to you; and right now, I don’t feel like we’re doing everything that needs to be done. So it’s about how we get there, together.”

“The conversation will absolutely not stop,” he said. “Any push to improve the services will not stop, until we hear from our students that they feel good, they’re healthy, and we’re in a position to thrive. Until we hear the message, we will not stop.”

The Students’ General Assocation executives are equally as committed to continuing the conversation, referring to it as “a high priority for the new leadership at the SGA”.

Current President Kraymr Grenke, and President-elect Roch Goulet penned a letter to their association addressing the results of the referendum.

“This issue is larger than one students’ association and, together, we will continue to collaborate with the university to enhance and better the system that we have currently in place,” it said. “Over the next upcoming year, many of our services will continue to be available, including counselling services through the university, counselling services through Aspriria – our student assistance program – as well as utilizing the resources that are available in the city of Greater Sudbury. While maintaining a focus not just on Mental Health Awareness Week and Bell Let’s Talk but 365 days a year.”

“In regards to the referendum, the questions and concerns of the student body have been heard by all associations and the university. We appreciate the feedback and we hope to incorporate it into our strategic plan as we continue to develop and solidify our plans for the future. We aim to ensure that all services needed can be provided and available for all Laurentian students.”

“If we are to attempt this referendum in the future, we intend on making sure that the whole student body is well informed and that the issues and questions brought up are clarified, precise and outlined with specificity to avoid all confusion and misinformation. A more comprehensive review/consultation process from the student associations will be conducted by holding information sessions so that all members of the Laurentian community will be informed to their fullest during the voting process. We will try to take a more active approach and call for a higher level of engagement on all our parts since a referendum and its issues are far more important than social media posts and a few posters around campus.”

This last point regarding a higher level of engagement that goes beyond social media is proof that the association is paying attention to the frustration of students who felt thrust into this process without enough information.

“We feel strongly that graduate students’ needs are not being met by existing services.” – GSA

Similarly, the Graduate Students’ Association has made it clear to its constituents that it will continue to advocate for their specific needs.

In an email, President David Vares noted that of those students who cast a vote, the GSA was the only student association to have over 50% support of an increase to the student health fees. These results are in correlation with recent studies that show graduate students are in dire need of specialized mental health services.

The GSA also sent out a message to their members addressing the referendum results, and steps moving forward.

“The Laurentian Graduate Students’ Association is aware that mental health is a growing concern for graduate students on our campus,” it said. “We realize that Laurentian University currently offers counselling and support services to students who are confronted by stress and mental health concerns, however we feel strongly that graduate students’ needs are not being met by existing services. We think our campus needs graduate student-specific counselling services.”

“Ontario graduate students recognized that there is a hesitancy to access mental health resources for fear of personal, funding and career reprisals. Graduate students face a unique challenge accessing campus support services because they often do not want their supervisors, administrators or mentors to know that they are struggling and have sought help, and are also wary of running into their own students and mentees when they do seek help.”

“Graduate students studying at Laurentian University indicated that they had witnessed and/or experienced undermining, professional or personal exclusion or isolation and spreading of malicious gossip during their studies which affected their ability to do their work and had a negative impact on their self-esteem and mental health.”

The GSA continues to advocate for graduate student counselling services that are physically separate from undergraduate counselling services and administrative / faculty offices, that offer flexible hours, particularly during the evening.

Despite the results of the referendum, Laurentian students and staff have made it clear that there continues to be dire need for an improvement of the services offered at our university—and they are committed to working toward that improvement together. This referendum served as a good starting point in terms of opening up the conversation to the wider student body, but it is vital that action follow these words of commitment.