It's no secret that a staggering number of Canadian youth struggle with mental health challenges. University students are particularly vulnerable because this is around the age when they are likely to be first diagnosed. That’s why it’s vital for postsecondary institutions to create an environment that protects them.
In 2020, the University of Ottawa took action to support its community. The President’s Special Advisory Committee on Mental Health and Wellness was launched, and by the end of the year, it had submitted a clear list of 12 recommendations that would create a framework for change on campus — one that would support those suffering from feelings of loneliness, alienation and other disorders plaguing young people today.
The overarching theme of all the recommendations was for uOttawa to evolve its services so that they are delivered in a way that promotes a circle of care.
In April 2021, the University of Ottawa Alumni Association was the first to step in and offer financial and community support for this holistic plan. Their 10-year, $500,000 commitment expands uOttawa’s circle of care by bolstering counselling services to ensure that students have access to support services in the afternoons and evenings.
The virtual wellness hub, a central information portal with peer chat functions, is an essential communication tool and another pillar of the strategy. Whether on campus or at a distance, there is advice and information on the Hub for the entire community.
Tying everything together is a true focus on community. A caring and knowledgeable community will create a culture that is more open and understanding. A successful suicide prevention strategy, for example, will give gatekeepers (peers, faculty, and community members) the tools they need to learn and understand mental health first aid.
“Training is essential,” says Elizabeth Kristjansson, university adviser on mental health and wellness. “Academic advisers and professors who understand disorders can make such a difference. The culture at uOttawa has to evolve so that everybody better understands mental illness. I believe that we all need to support each other.”
Another important next step for the university is to create a case management model for students who are most at risk. Case managers help students overcome the obstacles they may encounter in their lives that could impede their ability to thrive at school – either at a distance or after they return to campus.
Growing our support for a sustainable wellness platform
We are now drawing the attention and support needed to make wellness initiatives sustainable. The Ontario government is providing us with a $557,200 grant as part of Ontario's Roadmap to Wellness. This will support a physical and virtual peer support wellness lounge, the case management model for at-risk students, a mental health information campaign targeted at our vulnerable communities, and a peer support program for people with substance use disorders led by our community partner, the Community Addictions Peer Support Association.
Bell Canada provided $25,000 for a “Stay Healthy and Connected” listening tour, which allowed for in-depth community consultations, including focus groups. This funding will assist uOttawa with the important work of launching the National Standard of Canada for Mental Health and Well-being for Post-Secondary Students and to engage with our diverse populations for better inclusivity in our mental health initiatives.