Donation kick-starts conversation about mental health

Ralph and Gay Young on a recent visit to Student Health and Counselling Services

Ralph and Gay Young on a recent visit to Student Health and Counselling Services

Ralph Young is the Chancellor of the University of Alberta. But as a University of Saskatchewan alumnus, he isn’t shy about praising the U of S. “The U of S is Saskatchewan’s university,” says Young. “It has a great reputation among the provinces and it’s where so many of us got our start.” Throughout his 42-year career in the real estate development business in Edmonton, Young says he has come to recognize a “certain quality” in people from Saskatchewan. “There’s a work ethic, a down-to-earth style that is very gratifying to an employer,” he says. “It’s a great place to live and be from.”

Raised in Saskatoon, Young graduated from the U of S in 1967 with a civil engineering degree and spent several years in Manitoba working on bridge construction projects. He and his wife Gay then moved to Edmonton, where he earned his MBA from the U of A and she worked as an elementary school teacher. Joining the real estate development company Melcor in 1971, he served as CEO there from 2000 until his retirement this year, when he was named Chancellor of the U of A.

The Youngs have been significantly involved in many Alberta community organizations over the years, and have made several gifts to the U of A to assist western Canadian history projects—Young has a great personal interest in this area, and they were instrumental in helping bring back a valuable collection of diaries and artefacts belonging to famed RCMP officer Sam Steele from England to Canada. But Young says that they also wanted to do something for the U of S.

“We have always had an interest in supporting mental health initiatives,” he says. “In my family, my mother died through mental health challenges, and my younger brother also deals with mental health issues.” The Youngs were Rotary student exchange hosts for many years, and he says that his most recent involvement at the U of A has given him even greater appreciation that students on campus face some very significant mental health issues.

This has led the Youngs to make a gift to the University of Saskatchewan in the area of mental health: a $135,000 donation to create Grace’s Fund in Support of Student Mental Health in memory of Herb and Grace Young. Ralph Young says, “Because of my mother, it was a way to honour my parents and also provide some support for an area that is challenging to attract funding. Mental health is not glamorous, but it affects a big percentage of our population. We hope it will be of benefit.”

He adds, “It’s a small way of saying thank you to the University of Saskatchewan. One of the things I’ve always believed in is that it’s important to give back, even if it’s modest. As alumni, we’ve been given this great privilege of having a university education…if you think about the gift that we’ve been given, and the value of your education, it’s part of our responsibility as university graduates to give back. We’ve had that opportunity that not everybody gets.”

The Youngs’ donation is the largest-ever gift from private individuals to the university’s Student Health and Counselling Services. Terrie Fitzpatrick, Manger of Student Counselling Services, says “It’s so rare to have a donation of this impact—the only other gift of this magnitude is the building itself.” The new fund will help Student Health and Counselling Services create a campus-wide vision for mental health at the U of S, which will include suicide and stress campaigns, mental health plans that could be tailored for colleges with unique needs, and training and resources to help faculty, staff, and students identify and help students in distress.

Fitzpatrick says that since the counselling unit moved into its new premises with Student Health in Place Riel, they have experienced a dramatic increase in the number of students accessing their services: 37% over last year. The centre is now more open and visible, but student stress is also rising across Canada. “The stakes are a lot higher, tuition is higher, the pressure to do well…anyone can struggle with the transition to academic life,” says Fitzpatrick. “How do we, as a university, deal with these issues and make sure students stay on track? This is why this gift is so important. It will engage the campus community to talk not just about mental health and illness, but about mental wellness and well-being.”

Ralph Young agrees about the importance for university-wide mental health plans, pointing out that many mental health issues appear in people’s late teens and early adulthood. “Students are going through big changes in their lives,” he says. “Many people are able to handle the stress and pressure and go on to great things, but others can fall through the cracks.” If they’re not helped in time, this can have a huge impact on their future quality of life and ability to contribute to society.

Fitzpatrick says that there is still a stigma about talking about mental health, but she sees positive signs: “Students are becoming more savvy about accessing services, and the conversation is opening up.” After visiting the new Student Health and Counselling premises recently, Young says, “You get the sense that young people are getting the help that they need. The people here are passionate and committed, they’ve got some space and resources, and they can use these funds to build it even further.”

Written by Susan Pederson