Senior News Editor
On March 13, McMaster University hosted a Mental Health Symposium to evaluate the mental health efforts across campus. The event featured speakers from key players in combating student mental health issues.
Dr. Debbie Nifakis, associate director of counseling for McMaster’s Student Wellness Centre (SWC), John Starzynski, president of the Mood Disorders Society of Canada and Dan Johnson of The Jack Project at Kids Help Phone were among the speakers present at the event.
To evaluate current efforts at McMaster and consider alternate options, seven panelists, including the speakers, expressed their perspectives. In addition to the speakers, the panelists included Deb Earl, mental health team nurse for SWC, Siobhan Stewart, McMaster Students Union (MSU) president-elect, Mariette Lee, a McMaster student, Dr. Allan McFarlane, professor emeritus in the department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neuroscience and Heidi Muller of Student Conduct an Community Standards.
Panelists and speakers discussed the state of the mental health support currently available on the McMaster campus.
It has been noted that such services available on campus are of exceptional standard already, but are hindered by the lack of student awareness, noted Allan Fein, wellness education coordinator for the SWC. Discussions sought to “get some of the voices on campus together,” he said.
He further explained that the event looked at ways of building awareness about the services available to students battling difficulties in any domain of university life as those often translate into adverse mental health outcomes. Fein expressed that one untapped avenue of communication with the student body appears to be McMaster student cards, which are a staple item for all students.
Keeping vital contact information on student cards may be a simple way to build awareness to such services as the Student Wellness Centre.
The Jack Project at Kids Help Phone was initiated by the father of Jack Windeler, a Queen’s University student, who in 2010 took his own life in his battle against mental illness. The group focuses on the transition from high school to university.
It was noted that early intervention programs might be an effective measure to help students feel better connected to their new surroundings. While some are already in place, they may be improved and/or better publicized. These efforts are aimed at “catching students before they fall through the cracks of the system,” said Melissa Fernandes, wellness education assistant for SWC.
Proposals to improve mental health services on campus were a key element of Stewart’s election campaign and include the establishment of an after-hours peer support line, fall break, and implement training for mental illness following the LGBTQ Positive Space Training model.
The event marks neither a starting point or an ending point in campus mental health efforts, noted Fein. Given the strong foundation in place already, there remains potential for refinement in policies and publicity of services.
Considerations proposed at the event included revisions to policies pertaining to voluntary and involuntary university dropout.
Currently, students forced to take leave from university either by choice or force are faced with immense difficulty when they try to return to their studies. The time off reflects negatively as a result of the current policy framework, thus often restricting re-entry for such students, noted Fein and Fernandes.
The next steps at this time involve consolidating the ideas that came out of the symposium and look to the improvement of current services and the allocation of new recommendations to those parties on campus that can affect the envisioned change.