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Photo: Jaclyn McRae-Sadik/The Fulcrum

School’s vision of mental health ‘still unclear’, report says

A 2020 status report on mental health at the University of Ottawa has concluded that the school “lacks a cohesive, overarching, sophisticated and modern strategic framework” that would allow for the university to move toward a culture of wellness.

Approved by the university’s Board of Governors late last month, the “Roadmap to Wellness at uOttawa” report was produced by the Campaign Action Group (CAG), a mental health and wellness action group that was launched in January 2018 by U of O president Jacques Frémont.

In their 39-page report, the CAG highlights a number of different services, activities and initiatives done on campus that support mental health and wellness. But they also make note that the U of O’s direction, vision, mandate and objectives when it comes to mental health and wellness are “still unclear to our broader community.”

“This unintentionally suggests a lack of caring or commitment by the U of O and makes it difficult for community members to buy-in to the university’s plans, understand current status and contribute their skills to our evolution,” reads the report.

The group put forth an “ultimate recommendation” to the university, challenging the administration to “launch the development and implementation of a long-term, cross-university wellness strategic framework based on the principles and recommended steps in this report.”

The CAG worked on the report for 18 months, where information and recommendations were generated through consultation with community members, input from focus groups and analysis of campus activities regarding mental health and wellness.

According to the report, 81.7 per cent of U of O students stated that they are good or excellent health, while 9.1 per cent said that they have contemplated suicide in the past year. 

About 38 per cent of U of O students said they deal with anxiety, while 48 per cent said they stress affected their academic performance. Meanwhile, around 67 per cent of students have found academics “traumatic or very difficult to handle” in the past year.

The report also found that the total number of students accessing accommodations at the Student Academic Success Service (SASS) has been steadily increasing every year since 2016-17, jumping from 2,254 students to 3,200 in four years.

“The amount of work being done is astounding,” said Frémont about the report. “Are we there yet? Are we satisfied with that? Clearly no, there’s a lot more to be done or things to be done differently, we’ll all agree on that.”

The bulk of the report revolves around four key pillars — awareness, mobilization, training and strengthening —  that the CAG identifies as necessary in creating a culture of wellness on campus, each pillar coming with their own set of recommendations to help achieve them.

Awareness

The first pillar required in working toward a culture of wellness is the “awareness of the entire community” pillar, with a goal to equip faculty and staff with knowledge regarding mental health and wellness, the report says.

“Knowing what services are available and how to navigate them, promoting existing initiatives and reducing the stigma around mental health empowers the members of the community to support themselves and each other,” states the report.

One of the recommended steps to take in order to achieve the awareness around wellness, according to the report, is to “embed mental health and wellness at all levels into the daily business practices of the university, which includes expanding the new orientation model for incoming students to demonstrate the importance of embedding proactive mental health and wellness practices into their daily life.”

Mobilization

The second pillar identified by the CAG is the “mobilization to better coordinate initiatives across campus” pillar, which pushes the university to further collaborate with campus organizations and services to “better advocate together to advance health and wellness on our campus.”

The report’s recommended steps to achieving this sense of mobilization is to “implement a stronger infrastructure for long-term collaboration, coordination and mobilization of stakeholders,” and to “commit to adopt the best practices in the sector through the lens of mental health and wellness.”

Training

The CAG refers to the training pillar as “the skill development necessary in order to undertake a task related to health and wellness.”

Training, according to the CAG, includes “developing personal skills and resilience in order to take care of oneself; developing practical skills and knowledge to take care and support others; and learning what is best practice to take care of our larger community in regards to, for example, racism, stigmatization, sexual violence and other societal topics.”

The group highlights a number of different training initiatives that have been made to better support mental health and wellness, such as the overhaul of the 2019 summer orientation program.

According to the report, the revamped summer program offered 34 sessions on mental health and awareness to 2,530 enrolled undergraduate students between August and September, while eight sessions were offered to 610 enrolled graduate students.

As for recommended steps, the report asks that the university “promote and develop training and skill development opportunities that help the U of O population take care of themselves, their peers, and of our entire community.”

Strengthening

The report’s fourth and final pillar in creating a culture of wellness is the “strengthening our support and services” pillar.

The CAG notes that in order for the university to meet increased demands for their support services and resources, they also need to “adapt, modernize and incorporate best practice into our methods of providing services and programming.”

“In addition, policies, guidelines, programs and policies should all be developed using a mental health and wellness lens,” state the report. “Finally, we need to ensure our community is brought on board via consultation – and a strong feedback loop, evaluating and publishing our changes – so that our community members can see the progress towards a culture of wellness and understand their role within it.”

In order to strengthen their support and services, the report’s recommended steps are to “evaluate, adapt and continuously improve our processes”, and to “further invest in current services and programming.”

What’s coming next?

In an interview with the Fulcrum late last month, Frémont said that he has recently created an Advisory Committee on Mental Health that will listen to students and their concerns regarding mental health and wellness.

“Many people have a lot to say about mental health and how it should be tackled on campus, so to listen to these voices and to also to benchmark, because all universities in Canada are fighting with mental health issues and what is the best way of doing things and how far can we go?” said Frémont.

He also said that a series of town halls on mental health are scheduled to take place sometime in February or early March.

“We will listen a lot in the next few weeks and months, there will be town halls around mental health and everyone will be invited to participate,” he said. “There will be meetings between the task force and all those who want to get involved or provide pieces of advice, we will try to be better.”