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The front page of the report PACMHW
The front page of the President's Advisory Committee on Mental Health and Wellness's report. Image: PACMHW/University of Ottawa.

President’s Advisory Committee released report at U of O’s latest BOG meeting

Content Warning: This article deals with mental health

The University of Ottawa released its President’s Advisory Committee on Mental Health and Wellness report at its Dec. 7 Board of Governors (BOG) meeting. The 24-page report details multiple findings by the committee which has led them to develop 12 recommendations for the university’s administration in order to improve the mental health situation on campus.

“Mental health is top of mind for our students,” said Kevin Kee, dean of the faculty of arts and chair of the President’s Advisory Committee on Mental Health and Wellness. 

The President’s Advisory Committee on Mental Health and Wellness was created back in January 2020 to address what U of O president Jacques Frémont acknowledged as a ‘crisis’ on campus. Kee was appointed to head the committee by Frémont and U of O provost and vice president, academic affairs Jill Scott. 

Himself included, Kee assembled an eight-member committee that included an undergraduate student, graduate student, part-time professor, two vice-deans and two faculty staff members.

The committee developed the report over the past year through a series of “thorough and comprehensive listening exercise[s] to hear the views of students, professors and staff, to gain a deeper understanding of the mental health challenges.” It also “conduct[ed] an environmental scan of best practices among Canadian postsecondary institutions,” as a means to understand what has worked in terms of mental health for other universities.

“This approach allowed committee members to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges experienced by members of the university community,” explained the report. 

Recommendation #1: Sign the Okanagan Charter and implement the standards

The report’s first recommendation is for the University of Ottawa to sign the Okanagan Charter. 

Created in 2015, the Okanagan Charter is “an international charter for health promoting university and colleges, calls on post-secondary schools to embed health into all aspects of campus culture and to lead health promotion action and collaboration locally and globally.”

It also “provides institutions with a common language, principles, and framework to become health and wellbeing promoting campuses.”

“The charter would connect the University of Ottawa with other universities who have taken action on mental health and wellness, and provide us with a set of guidelines on how to become a health-promoting university,” reads the report. 

Additionally, the report calls for the university to “implement the National Standard of Canada for Mental Health and Well-Being for post-secondary students developed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada,” and to “implement the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.”

“It outlines a systematic approach to developing and sustaining a psychologically healthy and safe workplace, focusing on mental illness prevention and mental health promotion,” states the report. 

The University of Ottawa will officially sign the Okanagan Charter on Jan. 18 at 10:45 a.m.

Recommendation #2: Implement a coordinated approach to mental health and wellness

The second recommendation suggests that Elizabeth Kristjansson, the U of O’s special advisor for mental health and wellness that was hired in June, be “empowered” by the university administration to “develop and implement a long-term strategy for achieving mental health and wellness at uOttawa.”

“Such a strategy would be similar to those implemented at the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, and closer to home, at Carleton University,” states the report.

The new long-term strategy should “ensure” that all the U of O’s resources, initiatives and offices are aligned to support students in crisis. There would also be an emphasis on developing partnerships to “ensure the implementation of the stepped care model university-wide so that mental health resources, information and interventions are easily accessible for students.”

According to the report, “the model was put into place in 2018 in Counselling Services but has not yet been implemented University-wide.”  

Recommendation #3: Develop a transparent communications strategy and revisit protocols 

This recommendation deals directly with the University of Ottawa’s communications team’s approach to mental health and wellness in their messaging.

According to the report, “students expressed concern about the goals, timeliness and transparency of the well-intentioned university communications about student deaths.”

In the past, the university would inform the general student population of a student’s death by sending a mass email. The report recommends “targeted communications” may be more appropriate. In other words, limiting the reach of these communications — the report suggests solely to either members of the student’s department or faculty.

Furthermore, “mental health and wellness must become a central theme in the university’s communications.” 

“We recommend the implementation of a comprehensive communications strategy that promotes a culture of wellness, prioritizes mental health understanding and resource awareness, in multiple formats, on and off campus, and that include specific strategies and approaches to target messaging to marginalized groups.”

Recommendation #4: Strengthen and increase the profile of the wellness website and implement a virtual wellness hub

According to the report, “many students, staff and faculty do not know” the university launched a mental health and wellness website “developed to be a ‘one-stop shop.’ ” And “many others know it exists but do not know where to find it.”

“Those who find it are faced with a plethora of resources, tools and information related to mental health, but navigating the circuitous system of supports can be overwhelming, confusing and misleading.”

The committee recommends the university implements a new “marketing and promotion campaign” for the website and tries to “enhance” the Wellness Hub by including “a wellness assessment to help members navigate the system of resources available and quickly access the services and supports.”

The Wellness Hub should also include “links to ‘transition to university’ courses” and “programming on sleep, depression, anxiety, etc,” according to the report. 

Recommendation #5: Respond to student concerns regarding staffing of student support services and access

Arguably one of the most significant recommendations, the committee recommends that the university should also create “a physical ‘One Stop Shop’ mental health and wellness centre on campus.”

This would create a centralized hub for mental health resources on campus where it would be possible for students to receive “timely, accessible, coordinated and stepped care services.”

To assure that the new centre would be efficient, it is recommended new mental health professionals be hired as required to ensure “short wait times” and the importance of evaluating the need for “specialized counsellors.”

“Evaluate the need for specialized counsellors (who could be especially responsive to intersectional mental health factors such as racism, discrimination [including but not limited to those who identify as LGTBQ2S+], sexual violence, or disordered eating) for populations with differing needs like undergraduate and graduate, domestic and international students, in both English and French, and then take appropriate action,” explains the report.

Recommendation #6: Respond to student concerns regarding staffing of student support services and access

According to the report, through teaching research and learning, the university can benefit from working with community-based organizations like hospitals and care centres that specialize in mental health and well-being. 

Therefore, it is important to “continue expanding collaborative partnerships with community mental health resources to enhance coordination and collaboration across support services both on and off campus with a view to support an integrated continuum of mental health and wellness services.”

The report specifically suggests that the U of O expands its partnerships with Suicide Prevention Ottawa and the Centre for Innovation for Campus Mental Health. The latter is dedicated “to help[ing] Ontario’s colleges and universities enhance their capacity to support student mental health and well-being.”

It is also suggested to expand the telepsychiatry agreement with the Royal Ottawa Hospital “to increase the number of consultations with a psychiatrist.” That number currently sits at eight visits maximum per student according to the Student Academic Success Service (SASS) website. 

“Most students find that up to eight sessions is suitable to support most challenges. If the issues warrant long-term support or specialized services, we work in a collaborative way with students to make appropriate referrals as early as possible in the counselling process so that the student is able to quickly access specialized services to meet their needs,” reads the SASS website.

Recommendation #7: Expend training for professors and staff  

With limited trained mental health professionals at the university, the report suggests that it may be a good idea to provide extended training to all professors and staff members. 

“The goal of this training would be to equip professors and staff with tools they can use to identify, support and refer students to the appropriate service and personnel,” states the committee in the report. 

This would require the administration to work in “collaboration with human resources and other offices, academic units, collective bargaining units and the administration, ensure that mental health and wellness training programs are accessible and used by faculty members and staff.” 

These programs would help raise mental health awareness, help reduce the stigma, help inform staff and faculty of the services and supports available and would help them take account of early “signs and symptoms of mental health concerns” while training them on how to speak to folks in distress.

Recommendation #8: Provide university-wide and community-specific support

The next recommendation touches on providing resources that are more specific to BIPOC and international students by adapting resources to make them community specific.

“Ensure the delivery of community-specific resources, both on campus and online, to our diverse student community. For instance, at this time we are especially mindful of BIPoC community members and international students.”

In the report, the committee points to developing resources specifically for Indigenous students by working directly with “Indigenous communities in the National Capital Region, including Pikwàkanagàn and Kitigan Zibi, as well as local Indigenous organizations.”

This committee also recommends developing a set of “guidelines” for accommodations that could be offered to students living with mental illness. 

Recommendation #9: Support students leading or participating in mental health and wellness initiatives 

Over the last year, the University of Ottawa has seen many grassroots mental health initiatives take form such as the now-defunct UO Collective for Mental Health

Per the report, “student-led resources and initiatives should be promoted and given high visibility, for instance on the Virtual Wellness Hub.” 

The university should take advantage of these initiatives to “foster additional opportunities for students to connect both inside the classroom and across campus. This includes through group work and social opportunities, in virtual collaborative spaces.”

The committee believes “students should be supported in engaging with researchers in evidence-based research and participating in conferences and workshops.”

Recommendation #10: Expand support within faculties

The needs of students from different faculties vary, and with that in mind the committee recommended in the report that “faculty-based initiatives such as mentors and support groups [would] build local communities of support so that students feel less isolated.” 

In the findings portion of the report, the committee identified isolation, specifically loneliness, and its harmful impact on mental health “were concerns often repeated by students in particular.”

The report lays out two ideas as to what these initiatives could look like. 

  1. “Faculty-based support programs, similar to the Wellness Check programs in the Faculty of Medicine.” 
  1. “Wellness Advisors who spend time in faculties, where they can meet students and guide and support them in accessing mental health and wellness support delivered elsewhere on campus. At the faculty of engineering, for instance, special initiatives have been launched to assist international students.” 

Recommendation #11: Include mental health and wellness in syllabi and develop and offer mental health curricula

The committee took a page out of the University of Ottawa Students’ Union playbook and proposed the possible implementation of a “credit course for all first-year students.” It “would essentially be a uOttawa 101 [course] that emphasizes resiliency and coping skills, and that introduces students to University and faculty services that support mental health and wellness.”

The committee also recommends “the implementation of practices that will encourage awareness, early identification, and early intervention” in every syllabus.

“We see an opportunity to educate our students in mental health and wellness, and the supports available to them.”

It is iterated that professors should include mental health and wellness information in their opening lecture and in-class materials. The committee also believes the university should provide professors with resources they could consult to help create an in-class culture that supports mental health and wellness.  

“This could include privileging small group assignments, facilitating connections in the classroom, clarifying workload expectations, and reducing stigma connected to mental health and wellness,” reads the report.

Recommendation #12: Launch a multidisciplinary mental health and wellness research cluster 

Drawing on the university’s self-acknowledgement as a “research-intensive university,” the last recommendation states the university should “bring together [its] diverse scholarly experts and practitioners” to form a cluster to “generate new knowledge and practices to strengthen our community’s mental health and wellness.”

The report states this could be a great opportunity to “provide opportunities for students to engage with professors in evidence-based research and participate in conferences and workshops.” 

If funded appropriately, the cluster could host “nationally- and locally-focused conferences, including one on psychiatry (which would provide a research-based, University-supported counter-narrative to the Scientology exhibit that caused so much hurt on our campus).”

In January 2020, the University of Ottawa hosted a much-criticized anti-psychiatry Scientology exhibit which made headlines.

At the time, Isabelle Mailloux Pulkinghorn, the U of O’s media relations manager, said the university did not support the views expressed in the exhibit. 

Nevertheless, in the eyes of many students, the damage was done by allowing the exhibit to last a whole week in the hub of campus life at the time — the Jock-Turcot University Centre. 

The cluster proposed by the report could provide “internal assessments and reviews of how the University’s wellness and mental health initiatives are functioning, so we know which are most helpful and which to expand.”

Finally, “pilot projects” could be created “to test the use of problem-solving therapies delivered remotely, an initiative of special importance given the need during the pandemic to provide expanded services online and at a distance.”