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University of Guelph execs go door knocking to check on students mental health

Last Updated Mar 24, 2017 at 2:03 pm EDT

A student walks off campus at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario on Friday March 24, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Hannah Yoon

Top officials from an Ontario university took the unusual step of going door-to-door at campus residences three nights this week to check on the mental health of students.

It has been a trying time at the University of Guelph, where four students have killed themselves since the academic year began last fall, with the latest suicide occurring in January.

Two of those deaths occurred in campus residences, where the vast majority of first-year students live.

In the aftermath of the suicides, the university’s Residence Life team, which runs the school’s on-campus housing, decided to dust off an old program in which faculty members join their staff, go door-to-door to check on students’ health and hand out information on various supports available.

“Any time there’s a tragic event, you sit back and you want to figure out how to provide more support and resources and whatever else can we do,” said Patrick Kelly, an associate director of Residence Life who helped organize the initiative that was last used about seven years ago.

“What were we missing and what can we do fairly quickly and successfully?”

The school’s president, Franco Vaccarino, and provost Charlotte Yates, were among the 80 people who knocked on doors this week. The group also included deans, senior faculty members, alumni and students who work at the residences.

“I think it was important for us to say to students we may seem far away, but we deeply care,” Yates said.

“I was just really trying to make sure they stay healthy – get enough sleep, go to the gym, eat well, that kind of thing. It was about their overall health, but we also want make sure they are keeping track of their mental health too, because it’s all tied together.”

The university had come under fire from students in wake of the suicides. A petition demanded the school do more to support the mental health of students – and saw nearly 3,000 people sign it.

The latest effort, however, appears to have been received positively.

Meghan Wing, who graduated from the school last year and now works with the university’s student association, said students appreciated the recent visits.

“It’s proof that the university is trying and really wants to improve in any way they can and this is an example of that,” she said.

It was important for the university to actively try to reach students, especially after a recent town hall on mental health hosted by the school only attracted about 75 students, Wing said.

That event didn’t go over that well, Wing said.

“I wish there was more opportunity for students to voice their opinion – it was a lot of the university saying what they’re doing and more of a one-way talk,” she said, adding she wished students could provide more input on the mental health initiatives.

Kelly said the Residence Life team is working on various ideas on how to best support students and plans to roll out the house call program once again shortly after the new academic year begins in the fall.

“Research shows that’s an important time for students to make connections, to have a relationship with a professional staff member,” he said. “It leads to engagement, retention and a feeling of support.”