Student experience and mental health at the University of Waterloo


Over the past few years, UW students have had concerns regarding mental health and student experience. Imprint looked into what the university is doing to address these concerns.

According to a 2019 external review report of student experience at the University of Waterloo released by the UW office of the provost, “some of UW’s strengths – academic rigour, the co-op experience, and the focus on STEM disciplines, to name a few – also create additional challenges for an institution in search of strategies to enhance students’ experience and satisfaction.”

“We want the University of Waterloo to continue to be known for attracting and graduating top students. We don’t want that to change. The way some of us talk about it is this balance between the the rigor that exists here and care for our students,” said Chris Read, the associate provost, students said. “We have to find the balance between our academic rigor and our care for our students, and we’re gonna have to make adjustments because this is a rigorous place, but going forward, we’re really going to need to continue to try and balance how rigorous it is for students and what expectation level is appropriate… and I think we’re still pretty early on in that journey.”

Read acknowledged the importance of supporting students with their mental health concerns and highlighted the need for both reactive and proactive support systems. 

“Ultimately we know that if students feel well and are well, then … they have a better chance of succeeding academically, and when you come to university, you you come for a whole experience — academic and non academic. We want graduates who have thrived in their time here and feel a real affinity towards the university,” Read explained. “The reactive support services are one important element of that, but the proactive student culture and environment is another big part of that, and so that’s where the university is trying to trying to address it from a holistic perspective.”

In terms of the reactive support system, Read talked about the counselling and mental health support on campus. He said, “When I compare what counselling services and the mental health clinical program [at UW] look like now compared to what it did 10 plus years ago, it’s just so different.”

“We were a little bit ahead of our time back [10 years ago] with things like embedded counselors — counselors embedded that were dedicated to specific faculties. Most universities do that now. Our program has grown since then, but having said that, the counseling model was pretty pretty one-dimensional back in those days,” Read explained. “If you needed mental health support and you needed to see a counselor, you got on the waiting list, you waited for a counselor to be available and then you started engaging in ongoing therapeutic relationship with the counselor.”

While UW still has the ongoing therapy model, Read emphasized that the university has alos added other forms of support systems like walk in same day sessions and group therapy models. 

According to Cheri Bilitz, the director of counselling services at campus wellness, the university now has a team of counsellors who provide same day crisis appointments and support requests, with approximately 15 appointments available to meet these needs of the students on any given day.

Bilitz explained how counselling services has students connect with an intake specialist to identify their needs and help guide them through what supports are available. 

“In that conversation with the intake specialist, [the students] are gonna be talking about.

what’s bringing them to counselling, what types of concerns they might be dealing with, and through that conversation, they’re going to be talking about what they’re hoping to get out of a counsellor. So they might be looking for something specific out of a counsellor. It might be somebody with a similar lived experience or racial background … or it might be a counsellor who may speak a different language,” Bilitz explained. “It might be somebody who has specific training in a in an area such as eating disorders or substance use … So in that conversation, we’re trying to do the best matching of student need and clinicians that we have on our team.”

Read also acknowledged that there are concerns about the workload at the university.  “The workload concerns still exist. It’s not even across the institution though. Not every student is having the same experience. Some academic programs are more intense. Some students are in Coop and have that added complexity. So what the university is trying to do is is build a culture where there’s an understanding that student wellness is tied to workload and locally decisions are going to need to be made about, you know appropriate levels of workload and how assessments are done.”

To address the student culture at the university, Dr. Marlee Spafford, a professor at the school of optometry and vision science was appointed as a special advisor to the provost on student experience.

Spafford has been working on the Waterloo Student Experience and Engagement (WatSEE) framework to help guide the university and the different faculties with regards to how university culture can be developed in a way to help students thrive. The framework recognizes that students need to expand expertise, develop self and build a sense of self. These are meant to guiding principles for the university in its development of student experience. 

“There is the university’s recognition that it [wants] to add additional focus to student well-being and a more holistic student experience,” said Spafford. “So this framework was created after a period of consulting students, staff and faculty [and] looking at literature on post secondary student thriving and student success.”

Spafford added, “It is a goal to be thinking in a holistic way, to be wellness focused and to explore ways that, let’s say in the faculties they can think about what they’re doing.”