The University of Guelph campus is mourning yet another student who has died by suicide, the fourth since September.
The most recent death was Riley Lynch, 22, on Jan. 19. His obituary described the fourth-year physics students as a “loving and caring soul” and talented artist. The university has not released the names of the other three students.
It’s an unprecedented loss for the community of 22,000 students and on Bell Let’s Talk day, students took to social media to express their grief.
More than 2,500 people have also signed a petition, titled “Guelph: Stop Losing Students to Mental Illness,” that calls for a louder response from the university.
"Since October 2016, the University of Guelph's student community has lost too many lives to mental illness. These were young, vibrant individuals who felt that they had no one to turn to at the University. In response to each death, the University has provided a brief, generic statement stating a few resources on campus to 'assist staff and students,'" the petition reads.
"This is not enough. It's time for the school to acknowledge the prevalence of mental illness on campus."
It was started by Connie Ly, a Masters student at McGill University who graduated from Guelph's Biomedical Sciences program last April. She heard about the death's via the Overheard at Guelph Facebook page.
"After the fourth report of a student dying in such a short period of time, I really questioned how useful it was to keep advertising services that are really being overwhelmed," Ly told BuzzFeed Canada.
"After reading Overheard comments, it was clear a lot of current students wanted something to change at the school as well. As such, I decided to start the petition to start the ball rolling for some concrete steps."
The petition first calls for the university to release more information on how they provide mental health services, such as budget details and the ratio of counsellors to students. Secondly, it asks what changes the school will make going forward.
"The petition isn’t asking for a completely revamped mental health support network immediately. However, it is asking for the university to be open and direct in their initiatives surrounding this issue," said Ly.
Brenda Whiteside, associate vice president of student affairs, told BuzzFeed Canada the transparency issue is one they plan to address. But, she added, simply increasing access to counselling isn't necessarily a solution.
"There’s this sense that if you had more counsellors, it wouldn’t happen," she said.
"Obviously everyone's grieving right now, but there's this assumption that everyone who commits suicide wasn’t getting help — that’s just not true."
Some aren't satisfied with that response, however, including Veronica Majewski, a PhD Candidate in the Department of Philosophy at Guelph.
"I find comments like these distressing, because it either ignores or mischaracterizes the student petition, and doesn't do justice to what is in fact a thoughtful and serious engagement with the issue," Majewski, who has also worked as a teaching assistant, told BuzzFeed Canada.
"Students want to know how services currently function, and are asking for a clear statement of intent from the university on how it intends to proceed," she added.
"It's not a naive request for more counsellors, but a demand for improved engagement and openness with students on this important topic, and for the school to show their work."
Clearly, though, every part of the University of Guelph campus is struggling with the deaths.
"This is highly unusual," said Whiteside. "We’ve never seen this. I think that’s why it’s so difficult — it’s this anomalous piece."
On Friday, the university's president, Franco Vaccarino, released a statement tied in with Bell Let's Talk day.
"Despite a range of mental health supports and services offered on campus, and despite the outstanding work of our dedicated staff and students, we — like many communities — continue to experience challenges and loss," said Vaccarino.
"This has been a difficult time for us and I want to share my heartfelt sorrow and sympathy over the recent deaths of several of our campus community members."
He also outlined some of the services offered on campus, including three "drop-in emotional support sessions."
Whiteside said she and the mental health advisory committee are also considering holding their next meeting as a town hall, so students can sit in.
"We're struggling with everyone else to figure out how to support this ongoing societal issue," she said.
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Lauren Strapagiel is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Toronto, Canada.
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