Mental health plan calls for expansions

Student mental health must be stitched into the fabric of Western, according to a new draft strategic plan that recommends both expanding academic and social supports and consolidating health-and-wellness care.

In the works for 18 months, the Student Mental Health & Wellness Strategic Plan is now open for further comment until Feb. 9, for final approvals in April.

The document notes a healthy campus is one that promotes a better balance between prevention and treatment. It outlines a broad framework of strategic objectives, with dozens of goals and recommended strategies.

Among the goals of providing more accessible services, it recommends “unification of all services designed to support student mental health and wellness” as a way of reducing the fragmentation and siloing of supports.

“Clearly, there would be one point of access,” said John Doerksen, Vice-Provost (Academic Programs) and co-chair of the Student Health and Wellness Advisory Committee. “There certainly will be an effort to reorganize ourselves in the context of a health-and-wellness centre.”

Some of that movement towards a single point of entry is already taking place, said Rick Ezekiel, co-chair of the committee and interim Senior Director (Student Experience). For example, electronic health records are shared, as needed, among health professionals so the process is more streamlined.

“It takes time to work out the right model,” Ezekiel said. Space and organizational realities mean there is no quick way to “flip a switch” that would provide a single point of access overnight.

The draft plan emphasizes the link between mental health and academic performance.

“Health, including mental health, is central to educational success. Moreover, while stress and adversity can have negative effects on longer-term mental health and functioning … certain types of stressors have the potential to enhance the capacity for resilience, with downstream benefits to student mental health and wellness,” the report states.

The draft plan’s four strategic objectives call for the university to:

  • Develop a more resilient campus community;
  • Develop and deliver health communication and promotion;
  • Build inclusive curriculum and pedagogy; and
  • Provide accessible and effective mental-health-and-wellness services.

The plan includes everything from supporting students as they leave high school to training more people in mental-health first aid; from recognizing unique needs of international, Indigenous and marginalized students to building stronger partnerships with families and community agencies; from developing a centralized mental-health-and-wellness website to reviewing best practices for medical accommodations.

Doerksen added he hopes those who review the draft plan make note of how wide-ranging it is.

“First, there’s an increasing recognition that mental health is related to academic success and, in the last number of years, we’re starting to think more holistically about mental health. Second, the report recognizes we all have a role to play in mental health on campus, each in our own way,” he continued.

In a classroom or lab setting, for example, that could translate into more co-ordination among faculty on project deadlines or adopting a universal design of learning that embeds flexibility into teaching and evaluations.

“We can achieve the overall academic outcomes we’re looking to achieve, but perhaps in a different way,” Doerksen said.

As at other postsecondary schools, the incidence of mental-health concerns at Western is growing. Data from the 2016 National College Health Assessment survey shows 9.2 per cent of Western students reported having a psychiatric condition (3 per cent higher than in the same survey in 2013), higher than the 2016 Statistics Canada national average of 7.4 per cent.

Also, in 2016, 48.5 per cent of Western students reported stress as having a negative impact on their academic performance – an increase from the 33 per cent who answered the question in 2013.

That ramped-up need reinforces the importance of working with partners here, and in the broader community, for prevention and supports, Ezekiel said.

Mental-health planning and care is no quick fix on campus, or anywhere else.

“It’s recognizing the demand for mental-health services continues to rise and a reactive approach that simply expands services and makes it scalable isn’t really effective or sustainable. I hope faculty, students and staff will recognize mental health is a whole community effort. It’s not just the folks who provide mental-health services who should focus on improving mental health on campus.”

DO YOU NEED HELP?

  • During daytime hours, weekdays, contact the Student Development Centre, 4th floor Student Services Building, 519-661-3031; Student Health Services, University Community Centre, Room 11, at 519-661-3030; or Campus Community Police Service, 911 from a campus phone or 519-661-3300 from cell;
  • After-hours, reach out for 24-hour phone crisis help at 519-433-2023; Good 2 Talk Helpline for postsecondary students at 1-866-925-5454; Campus Community Police Service, 911 from a campus phone or 519-661-3300 from cell; First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help at 1-855-242-3310; or Bell Let’s Talk at ca or 1-800-668-6868;
  • Or visit the Health and Wellness website at uwo.ca/health/mental_wellbeing

TIMELINE

2015. Advisory Committee on Student Mental Health formed and begins work.

Spring 2016. Mental-health strategist hired to scan internal and external processes, policies and services for mental health on campus.

August 2016-February 2017. Consultations with more than 500 staff, senior leaders and students; also hears from 1,500 people via campuswide email survey

2017. Committee translates research and comments into draft plan.

January 2018. Draft mental-health strategic plan released for comment.

WHAT’S NEXT?

  • Public comment period open until Feb. 9. Comments may be sent to mentalhealthplan@uwo.ca;
  • Senate Committee on University Planning (SCUP) reviews plan at its Feb. 5 meeting and recommends any further changes at Mar. 5 meeting;
  • Senate votes on plan Apr. 13; and
  • Board of Governors votes on plan Apr. 26. If approved, implementation begins.