$1-million gift accelerates student mental health effort at Desautels

Gisèle and Neil Murdoch | BCom class of 1981

Donors Gisèle and Neil Murdoch create Local Wellness Advisor position to help Management students

For BCom students at the Desautels Faculty of Management, achievement and anxiety often go hand in hand.

“There is a strong sense of camaraderie at Desautels, but it is still an undeniably competitive environment,” says Kanishk Shah, a fourth-year student who serves as a leader in the Management Undergraduate Society. With an average of 94 percent, BCom students who win acceptance into one of Canada’s most competitive programs encounter a pool of equally talented students and a curved grading system.

“We put enormous pressure on ourselves to succeed, not just academically but professionally,” Shah reflects. “We’re working on assignments while working part-time jobs and interviewing for the next opportunity. And networking is a major part of the business school experience, so we feel left out if we miss anything. As all of it builds up, students start to break down.”

Over 25 years at Desautels, Professor Liette Lapointe has witnessed an “uphill battle against anxiety” in the student body. “It’s normal to feel nervous for an exam, but we have students feeling so sick they ask for deferrals,” she shares.

In some cases, students face more serious mental health challenges that their instructors lack the capacity to address.

“I remember a time when a student wrote a cry for help in an essay for one of her classes,” says Lapointe. “The instructor was a PhD student who had no idea what to do, so I stepped in to connect the student to the resources she needed. After graduating, the student sent me a note to say that, without this intervention, she would have given up. Ultimately, though, instructors and administrators are not social workers or psychologists. We need more support.”

In her previous role as Associate Dean of Undergraduate Programs, Lapointe advocated relentlessly for more resources to bolster student mental health. “We had to do more, not only to help students in crisis but to equip them with tools to prevent crisis in the first place,” she says. Desautels Dean Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou agreed with Lapointe’s assessment and began to explore potential avenues for acquiring more resources. In 2019, the solution came in the form of a $1-million gift.

Creating a support system

Gisèle and Neil Murdoch, BCom’81, have supported a variety of initiatives and programs at Desautels over the years. As the Student Wellness Hub – funded in part by The Rossy Foundation – began to take shape, they identified an opportunity to ensure that Desautels students would experience the full benefit of the University’s push to invest in mental health.

“A few years ago, our family sat down and had a discussion about the causes we wanted to support,” Neil remembers. “There was unanimous agreement among our three children, the oldest of whom is a Desautels grad, that we needed to prioritize mental health.”

According to Gisèle, their children have had a number of friends who have struggled with mental illness. “Our goal as a family is to help put a support system in place so that students with mental health struggles don’t fall into crisis,” she says. “It’s going to be a process, not a one-time event.”

After extensive discussions with staff at Desautels and the Student Wellness Hub about how to make the greatest impact, the Murdoch family donated $1 million to fund a new Local Wellness Advisor (LWA) position at Desautels for 10 years. In November 2019, Samara Yesovitch, MSc’19, was hired to fill the role. With a background in behavioural psychology and family therapy, Yesovitch brings extensive expertise to the role, but she also brings a profound sense of empathy for the students she serves.

“I remember the fear of not being good enough, of not knowing the right people or knowing the right things,” she reflects. “I really resonate with what I hear from the students, which puts me in an advantageous position to validate and speak to their concerns.”

As she began to meet with students at the beginning of the year, Yesovitch identified the most common challenges they face.

“Most of our students are not dealing with mental illness,” she shares. “They’re dealing with fear, anxiety, and an uncomfortable level of uncertainty. With preventative measures and early intervention, we can make a difference for them.”

In normal times, Yesovitch would split her time between one-on-one student consultations, group workshops, and meetings with faculty and staff. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted her plans only two months into the job, she began creating videos to help students cope with the unique challenges of life in quarantine. To date, her videos have accumulated more than 4,500 views, and she has received positive feedback from dozens of students by email.

“It’s important for students to realize that Desautels cares enough about them to support their mental health,” Yesovitch says. “They want to feel like they’re more than a number, more than a tuition cheque.”

Given the strong sense of community within Desautels, students have affirmed the value of having an advocate right in their own building. That feeling of mental security also extends to faculty and staff members who struggle to respond to student mental health challenges.

“It has helped us all to know we can refer students to Samara,” says Lapointe. “We’re so happy they have a place to be heard and supported.”

Breaking the stigma

While the creation of the Local Wellness Advisor position has accelerated the effort to provide better support for Desautels students, a stigma surrounding mental health issues remains.

“One of the things students struggle with most is admitting we need help,” says Kanishk Shah. “There is a feeling that we will be perceived as weak, like we can’t cut it.”

In her time at Desautels, Yesovitch has observed this dynamic at work. “There is a fear of being vulnerable that we all share,” she says. “I think there is more openness than when I was a student, but we’re not quite there yet.” As she settles into her new role, her message to students is simple: “Don’t wait until you’re in crisis! You don’t need to know exactly what you feel or what you need to seek help. We’ll figure it out together.”

For the past several years, Shah and his fellow student leaders in the Management Undergraduate Society have worked to fight the stigma through planning an annual Mental Wellness Week and working with professors to help them better identify and serve students in distress.

“It’s going to take time to make positive change,” he acknowledges. “It’s not something that will happen in a year or two. But the new LWA position is definitely taking Desautels in the right direction. As our Faculty begins a new decade, the Murdoch family’s $1-million gift will inspire change that helps students over a lifetime.”

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