The St. Thomas University Students’ Union will hold a referendum on installing a new mental health fee over the next four years through the university’s capital campaign.
Vice-president administration Matt LeBlanc said students will vote on the idea March 28 and 29.
“The mental health fee will be a donation to the capital campaign as a restricted fund earmarked exclusively for mental health services and programming,” LeBlanc told The Aquinian on Monday.
“The Students’ Union would have influence on how student services spends that money.”
The proposed fee would be one of four STUSU fees students pay each year, costing $33.91 for full-time students. Part-time students would pay $3.40 per three-credit hour course.
The fee will go through STU’s capital campaign, a funding initiative aimed at rebuilding scholarship endowments, assisting residence renovations and supporting mental health services.
STU said a spokesperson would not be available for comment until Tuesday afternoon.
LeBlanc proposed the idea in an private meeting between the Union and STU administration on Monday.
LeBlanc said he came up with the referendum after months of dealing with the ins-and-outs of STU’s health plan coverage and almost four years of seeing peers struggle with mental health on campus.
By the number, STU’s student health plan coverage shows depression or anxiety medication is the third most popular prescription students use.
“My responsibility here [is] to get money on the table and I hope to empower future Unions and future students to make the decisions on how the money will be spent specifically,” he said.
“So future students will have a lot of agency in terms of working collaboratively with student services to identify where the funds should be allocated, what sorts of activities should occur and what sorts of stigma-ending initiatives should be put in.”
The university is expected to send out an email to students notifying them of the referendum on Tuesday morning. A set total amount for the fee may be determined by the end of the March 15 STUSU meeting.
The fight for funding
LeBlanc said this funding cannot wait any longer.
“This is overdue and the time is now. St. Thomas students suffer disproportionately with mental health concerns if you compare us with universities across the country.”
The most recent National College Health Assessment shows the struggle with mental health is above the national average for STU students.
In 2013, 78 per cent of STU students identified as being very lonely, 69 per cent felt hopeless and 51 per cent said they felt so depressed they were unable to function.
It also showed 18 per cent considered suicide and 2.7 per cent had attempted. The national average for self-harm sat at 6.6 per cent, while STU’s average was more than double at 13.4 per cent.
Nationally, 6.1 per cent of students said they had been diagnosed or treated for depression and anxiety. STU’s number was 13.4 per cent.
The university does fund mental health services already, including counselling and a newly-opened peer support centre.
But LeBlanc said it can never be enough.
“Mental health is underfunded at this university and I would rather we adjust mental health funding now than when a wake up call comes,” he said.
LeBlanc said this referendum is one of four ways STU can increase mental health funding. The other three ways include grants from both levels of government, tuition increases or STU creating its own mental health fee.
Those options range from being “overwhelmingly unlikely” to taking the agency and choice of where the money goes out of students’ hands, LeBlanc said.
St. Thomas hasn’t held a referendum since 2006 when the campus-wide bus pass was created.
Increased fees, increased stress?
Concerns from fellow STUSU representatives have been raised about rushing into the idea too quickly, as well as the paradox of increasing students’ fees when financial burdens are often the cause of stress.
The 2013 health assessment showed 53 per cent of STU students dealt with financial struggles. The national average was only 36.8 per cent.
Nicholas Decarie, an at-large representative for STUSU, said he and others who are against the referendum are not opposed to providing mental health services.
However, he said “it is emphatically wrong to conclude that the responsibility to provide those services falls on the backs of students.”
Decarie said he fears STUSU will set a precedent for the university to continue asking the Union for money. He also questioned why STUSU does not, for example, continue lobbying the government to fund more services for students instead.
“The solution being posed by [STUSU] is a temporary fix to try and give the university more time to solve a major problem that the university has put on the back burner,” Decarie said in a message.
“The university does not need us to pay more money to squander so they can find a solution. They need to find and implement a permanent solution which does not depend on imposing more financial burdens on students.”
But LeBlanc said he cannot foresee any adverse effects stemming from this additional fee.
Instead, he said the university needs to do a better job advertising financial aid opportunities for students.
“If a student is worried that they can’t afford an extra $33.91 fee, they are precisely the students that the university has a duty to provide financial aid to,” he said.
“The benefit of a sizable donation to mental health offsets the harm done to a few students that are struggling financially.”
He said the fee would institutionalize collaboration and communication between STUSU and student services.
LeBlanc will be campaigning from March 21 to 27 to inform students about the referendum and discuss concerns or ideas with them.
“Our goal is to hone a mental health regime at St. Thomas that is inclusive for everybody and that will not adversely effect anyone.”
More to come.
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