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 March 12.
“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.
If students say yes, St. Thomas University could see an extra $300,000 go toward its mental health services and programming over the next four years.
The STU Students’ Union passed a motion to strike an ad hoc negotiations committee regarding the mental health fee referendum on March 15. The committee would meet with STU president Dawn Russell to discuss the possibility of a $50,000 transfer from STUSU accounts as a donation to the university’s capital campaign.
LeBlanc proposed the idea on March 12. He 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 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.
As referendums operate similarly to elections, students have until March 20 to apply to STUSU’s chief returning officer to create and join “Yes” or “No” committees. Those committees will campaign from March 21 to 27.
A public forum on the referendum question will take place March 26 at 6 p.m. in the off-campus student lounge.
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.”
Former vice-president student life Brianna Matchett said it’s not STUSU’s job to collect money for the university.
“I think there’s a problem with the Students’ Union collecting money to give to the university for a service that they won’t have complete control over,” Matchett said.
“Ultimately the money is being collected by the Union, but it’s being directly handed back to the university.”
Matchett, an advocate for mental health awareness, doesn’t think this is the right way to go about combating mental health struggles on campus.
“It’s almost like they’re issuing an ultimatum, like if we don’t do something [then] something bad is going to happen. As a person with mental illness, that’s just disingenuous to me,” Matchett said.
However, she said she still thinks STUSU has done a great job advocating for mental health services this year.
“They’re advocating at a national and provincial level for governments to give more money to mental health, they’ve played a role in the creation of a mental health framework for the university [and] they’ve allocated a budget line toward mental health activities,” she said.
“I think the Students’ Union has done a lot for mental health … I think the university needs to step up and do their job without the Union’s help.”
LeBlanc said the fee would institutionalize collaboration and communication between STUSU and student services.
“Our goal is to hone a mental health regime at St. Thomas that is inclusive for everybody and that will not adversely effect anyone.”
University ‘thrilled and excited’
Jodi Misheal, STU’s interim vice-president advancement and alumni relations, said the university is glad the Union has taken up this initiative.
“With this referendum and the Students’ Union coming to say, ‘This is the area that we would like to support as part of our support for the campaign,’ it gives us a huge advantage and a great tool to be able to go out to not only friends and alumni, but corporations, because mental health is a significant touchpoint for many organizations at the moment,” Misheal said.
Associate vice-president communications Jeffrey Carleton agreed and said the university is “thrilled and excited.”
With files from Sarah Morin