“So many of us lack the proper training in suicide prevention and other mental health issues,” says Professor Elizabeth (Betsy) Kristjansson, a senior psychology researcher at the Centre for Research in Educational and Community Services. “Especially on campus, when we encounter a student in crisis, we need to know what to do, what to say, and where to direct them.”
On July 1, 2020, Kristjansson was appointed Special Advisor in Mental Health and Wellness for the University of Ottawa, a position created in the wake of the 12 recommendations presented last May by the President’s Advisory Committee on Mental Health and Wellness.
The uOttawa community is made up of around 50,000 people – more than the cities of Cornwall, Timmins, or the entire territory of Nunavut. Considering that in any given year, one-in-five people in Canada will personally experience a mental health issue or illness, with up to one-in-three experiencing a mental health issue in their lifetime, “it’s clear there’s work to be done,” says Kristjansson. “But it is also clear that a great deal of good work is already going on. I’ve learned that there are many people on campus who are deeply committed to the mental health and wellness of all others.”
The Special Advisor in Mental Health and Wellness will be responsible for helping ensure that the University carries out the Committee’s recommendations effectively and in a timely manner.
“My role is to keep the University accountable,” she says. “I will be helping to assess how the University is implementing the recommendations of the Interim report, keeping track of the progress made, and helping to identify and address the gaps that remain. Essentially, I am here to help move uOttawa’s mental health and wellness goals forward for the benefit of its community members, making sure that students, faculty, and staff all have the support they need to thrive.”
Other recommendations include: training for University leaders and administrators; hiring more diverse counsellors and mental health advisors for students; developing new online tools for easier access to resources; and adopting University-wide standards for psychological health and safety in the workplace and for students.
“Another thing we need is better ways of communicating with faculty, staff, and students,” says Kristjansson. “There are many people in our community who are already doing amazing things for the mental health of our students and staff, but there has been some confusion about what the University provides and what Health Services provides. And overall, we need more communication on what we can provide and what we can’t provide, as a university. Although we have counsellors, we do not have psychiatrists on staff, but we can refer people to specialists and have that process be seamless.”
Another big part of her job will be to consult with as many university community members as possible to learn about their issues and hear their ideas for improvement. This will help her identify the missing links in the processes, and pinpoint funding priorities for the University’s mental health and wellness strategic plan.
“One of the 12 recommendations is for the University of Ottawa to sign the Okanagan Charter, which will commit us, as a university, to putting physical and mental health at the forefront of everything we do,” says Kristjansson. “We are also committed to adopting National psychological health and safety standards in the workplace and for students. Part of that is training professors in crisis management, for example. It’s also committing to practicing antiracism and learning to consider diversity communities in our counselling and in our work.”
At the end of her three-year term, Kristjansson will have played a key role in solidifying uOttawa’s mental health and wellness priorities and in helping to ensure that the University’s services have the resources they need to deliver quality care without delay. Her expertise in neighbourhoods and community health will be an asset to her in this new role.
“I strongly believe in evidence-based action, and I have a lot of experience working with various communities and bringing people together to solve problems,” she says. “I’m also good at synthesizing information and extracting the most important pieces. I’m also passionate about helping students and I’m known for providing a safe space and a supportive environment, which will go a long way to help move uOttawa towards a culture of wellness.”