Article contains mentions of suicide
Year after year, mental health is a consistent topic of discussion that sometimes gives a catalyst forward. The Student Mental Health and Well-Being Strategy, released back in 2015, is one example of this where the foundation of how the university approaches the subject radically changes.
The results came shortly afterwards as McMaster topped the list of Maclean’s magazine as the top ranked university in Canada for mental health services based on their Student Satisfaction Survey. There were a few problems with the survey itself, but it was a good sign.
Then nothing happened. The work was done. The Mental Illness Awareness Week continues to persist from before the strategy, you get a few sound bites from McMaster Student Union presidential hopefuls about what they would do to help improve our services and that is about it.
On June 26, a new bright yellow bench was introduced to the lobby of the Health Sciences Library. It was donated by the family and friends of Dr. Robert Chu, a graduate of our School of Medicine, after he committed suicide in 2016.
The Friendship Bench program was co-founded by Sam Fiorella in honour of his son, Lucas, who committed suicide in 2014. At the time of writing, there are 33 benches across Canadian secondary and post-secondary schools with 40 more in queue for fundraising. They are meant as a constant, visual reminder, to encourage peer-to-peer discussion and to connect students to available mental health resources. It works in collaboration with existing services.
It has put mental health back into the conversation that McMaster should always be having, and does it effectively with respect and purpose. My main concern is that the effort for the foreseeable future will stop there.
It is not that the inspiration does not seem to be there. As mentioned previously, presidential hopefuls bring it up all the time because it is, unfortunately, such as prominent issue. There are a few inhibiting factors that get in the way.
One of the things our original critique of Ehima Osazuwa’s platform during his campaign trail, later the 2015-16 MSU president, included was a point to his want to lobby for mandatory training for TAs in accommodating students with disabilities. The MSU vice-president (Education) at the time stated that he had resistance in implementing mental health-specific training for TAs, so it was arguable whether further training could be mandated for the entire university.
Despite this, the idea of training specifically related to mental health came up again in three different platforms in the campaign for the 2016-17 presidency including the victor’s, Justin Monaco-Barnes, and on two platforms in the 2017-18 presidency race.
Our current president, Chukky Ibe, had a platform that mentioned, “…providing funds for student groups who create independent programming in regards to the welcome week strategic themes,” including mental health, but it remains to be seen if he can follow through with that promise.
Let us hold those in charge more accountable for improving our services. While talking about it is important and the benefits of discussion guided by things such as The Friendship Bench and Mental Illness Awareness Week cannot be understated, we should continue to strive for more than empty promises or promises that cannot be followed through.
It should not take circumstances like this or a presidential campaign to start caring about the problem again.