Category Archives: Uncategorized

Mental Health: An Evergreen Priority at Queen’s

As our campus evolves and strategic targets are reached, new priorities take the place of the old. In my six years as principal, I’ve seen ambitious goals come and go as they are met, but there is one priority that remains high on the list year after year: mental health.

Some might consider this a failure, but I believe the opposite is true. We have made far too many strides in improving awareness of the mental health-related challenges that are inherent in university life, and the resources that exist on our campus to help our students manage these challenges, for us to write it off as such. However, we know that we still have a long way to go in building the most responsive and supportive community that we can. On paper, we can set deadlines and targets, but in reality, this issue is complex, pervasive and constantly evolving. At Queen’s, mental health has become our evergreen priority.

We are working to support mental health research at Queen’s, and yet each time we address a challenge, new concerns present themselves. For instance, Dr. Michael Condra, our former director of Student Wellness Services, and Dr. Heather Stuart, our Bell Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair, are two researchers who have been studying ways to reduce the shame and stigma associated with mental illness on campus. We are now witnessing the positive outcomes of their important work. As the stigma has slowly dissipated, and the number of requests for accommodations has risen, we have responded by increasing the number of advisors available to Queen’s students and we recently piloted a first-year transition program for students with disabilities.

Of course, we have also been working hard to improve our counselling and wellness services across campus, and we know that we must continue to increase access to them. We are now actively exploring ways to co-locate services that promote physical and mental wellness with other academic and student services offices as a way of integrating health with the entire student experience. The proposed new wellness and innovation centre will be complemented by our embedded counselling services within faculties and campus buildings, which serve to reduce stigma and offer easier access to care and programming that is customized to the needs, culture and environment of each faculty.

There are many de-stressing events and opportunities on campus, including the very popular "Critters on Campus” days where students can cuddle and hang out with dogs. The event is hosted by the student-run ASUS Lost Paws

There are many de-stressing events and opportunities on campus, including the very popular “Critters on Campus” days where students can cuddle and hang out with dogs. The event is hosted by the student-run ASUS Lost Paws.

We also know that we need to focus on the health and wellness of the entire Queen’s community, and not just our students. For example, approximately 24 per cent of reported sick leave absences among employees relate to mental illness. In addition, these absences tend to be the longest in duration and most difficult to overcome when returning to the workplace. In an effort to combat this, Queen’s hosted its first Thrive Week this past November, which comprised a series of events focused on building positive mental health for students, faculty and staff. More than 70 events were held on campus over five days, structured around Thrive’s mental health themes: sleep, stress, stigma, physical activity and nutrition. It was wildly successful for its first year, and the implementation team is now working to maintain many of the activities throughout the year, and explore ways to improve faculty turnout next year.

I think it is also fair to say that the issues our community members face evolve over time and our response needs to reflect the increasing diversity of our student population. Last week, our university chaplain Kate Johnson talked about how she has increased student access to faith-based support through the hiring of part-time chaplains of multiple faith, a new multi-faith space on west campus, and a values-based financial literacy program, which has seen the number of enrolled students double in the past year.

Today at Queen’s we celebrate Bell Let’s Talk Day, which serves as both an important reminder of the issues we face together and a unique fundraising campaign that has helped to funnel more than $100 million towards mental health initiatives in Canada since 2010. Today, we also celebrate the work of our researchers who are making it easier to ask for help. We celebrate the dedication of our students, faculty and staff to making Queen’s a safer and more inclusive place. We celebrate our accomplishments, while acknowledging that we still have a great deal of distance to go.

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For more information on Bell Let’s Talk Day, see a recent blog post from our Bell Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair, Dr. Heather Stuart.

Nobel win reflects Canada’s potential for world-leading research

The following op-ed was published in The Hill Times.

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Professor Emeritus Art McDonald as he prepares to receive his Nobel Prize in Physics.

On Thursday, December 10, academics and dignitaries from around the world gathered in Stockholm for the annual Nobel Prize ceremony. Among this year’s laureates is Canadian Arthur B. McDonald, a professor emeritus at Queen’s University and co-winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics.

I was fortunate to attend the ceremony and, as I watched, I quite literally felt a thrill for my country equal to that which I experienced when the Blue Jays won two World Series.

Dr. McDonald is the first scientist at a Canadian university to win a Nobel since the mid-1990s. He earned his medal for the research done at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO). SNO, now known as SNOLAB, is the site for a series of highly complex experiments costing millions of dollars and conducted two kilometres underground in a working nickel mine near Sudbury, Ont.

The results have been momentous. Dr. McDonald and the team he led as part of the initial SNO collaboration found that tiny particles called neutrinos change identities on their travels between the sun and the earth, and therefore have mass. This discovery has profound implications for our understanding of the universe and matter, and has set a path for new directions in the study of astrophysics.

Queen’s is very proud of Dr. McDonald. He is a dedicated scientist, a gifted teacher and a true trailblazer. He is a leader who values patience and persistence, and a person who epitomizes Queen’s approach of providing a transformative student learning experience coupled with an unwavering commitment to research excellence. But Dr. McDonald would be the first to tell you that he didn’t do it alone.

The project began in the mid-1980s and took a staggering leap of faith on the part of many individuals to conceive of the experiment. It took the collaboration of several partner universities, financial support from government funding agencies, the cooperation of industry (Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd and Inco), and a team of more than 270 researchers in Canada and around the world to bring the project to fruition.

While in Stockholm, I heard a number of non-Canadians speak with envy of the fact that an experiment such as SNO had been conducted in Canada. Looking back over the past 30 years, it is difficult not to be appreciative of the many contributions that made this project possible.

This includes the critical investments that successive governments have made in university-based research through various granting agencies and funding programmes. Canada’s commitment to supporting fundamental research was essential to the success of this research and this Nobel win.

However, despite past investments, Canada’s position as a research power is in some jeopardy. The infrastructure on Canadian university campuses is aging and facilities for conducting innovative research require urgent renewal. Most worrying of all is that we are at risk of losing the very people who conduct this sort of research. Success rates in applications to several funding programs of the three major federal granting agencies have dropped, and none of the agencies have had a real (greater than inflation) increase to their budget in years.

If we, as a country, want Art McDonald’s Nobel win to be the beginning of a golden age for Canadian research and scholarship, then we must be prepared to make new investments in fundamental research. The risks of not doing this run far beyond not getting another Nobel Prize for 20 years. They include losing the next generation of top-tier academics to other countries and allowing Canada’s position as a world research powerhouse to weaken.

Instead, let’s aspire to make Canada and its universities global leaders in research excellence and to be back in Stockholm with some regularity.

Remembering December 6, 1989

Every year, I pause to remember the events of December 6, 1989. I look back at what was happening at Queen’s and around the world.

December 6 marks the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women in Canada. This day marks the tragic anniversary of the murders of 14 young women at l’École Polytechnique de Montréal.

To bring our attention to the global aspect of this issue, December 6 also falls in the middle of the 16 days of Activism Against Gender Violence, which starts with the International Day Against Violence Against Women on November 25, and ends on Human Rights Day, December 10. This year’s theme marks the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and dedicates itself to ensure violence against women and girls is high on the public agenda.

I have been committed to leading the university in fostering a campus environment that is free from harassment, discrimination and violence. We have implemented a number of changes at Queen’s over the last year, to enhance support services on and off campus, to introduce new education programming, resources and training for students, staff and faculty. We are continuing our work on sexual violence and response, including updating our draft sexual assault policy to reflect the new provincial requirements. We recently announced that the university will be creating a dedicated Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Coordinator position, housed in a new Sexual Violence Support Office. The coordinator will be the central point of contact for students, staff and faculty and will lead campus-wide education, response, support, training and advocacy activities.

We recognize the importance of a broader strategy and an approach that brings everyone, including young men into the solution, just as many of them were part of the positive discussions in the years after 1989.

Queen’s student Lyden Evers (Artsci’16) is one such example. He is a board member of a new Canadian organization named One Spark which provides funding to help survivors of domestic violence start their own businesses. On November 25, the group began its Candle Campaign, which invites all Canadians to light a candle in their front window on December 6 in order to show their support for women who have experienced domestic and other forms of violence. Mr. Evers was motivated to join the board as his mother works in the field and he wanted to pass One Spark’s message on to friends and colleagues at Queen’s.

As United Nations’ theme for the 16 Days of Activism reminds us: despite progress, levels of violence against women and girls remain unacceptably high worldwide. I ask everyone to take some time, particularly today, to reflect on these very serious issues and how we, as members of the Queen’s community can help to engage in positive discussion and make the world a more equitable, safe and peaceful place for both women and men.

Geneviève Bergeron (21)
Hélène Colgan (23)
Nathalie Croteau (23)
Barbara Daigneault (22)
Anne-Marie Edward (21)
Maud Haviernick (29)
Barbara Klucznik Widajewicz (31)
Maryse Laganière (25)
Maryse Leclair (23)
Anne-Marie Lemay (22)
Sonia Pelletier (28)
Michèle Richard (21)
Annie St-Arneault (23)
Annie Turcotte (20)

December 6, 1989

The memorial service held annually by the Engineering Society of Queen’s University, will take place this year on December 4 at 1pm in the Beamish-Munroe Hall atrium.

Respect and support are important values for the Queen’s community

The recent attacks in Paris and terrorist events in Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere have shocked the Queen’s community and the world. These events, like so many others from around the world, affect members of our diverse and global university community. Anger and outrage at the perpetrators of atrocity is a natural reaction. Generalized hatred directed at a group or individuals on the basis of their background, religion or ethnicity is not. I was dismayed to hear about hateful and discriminatory statements directed towards Queen’s students and others on social media. It is deeply concerning to me that some students are being targeted through anonymous sites such as Yik Yak with comments that are completely inconsistent with the culture and values we promote at Queen’s.

All members of the Queen’s community should be able to go about their lives without fear of discrimination or hate. Queen’s is a place where people look out for and respect one another and support one another as friends and peers. In a complex, difficult and often violent world, universities should be havens for reason, reflection and the pursuit of knowledge. In times of crisis and stress, both the fragility and the critical importance of these values are all the more evident. As we mourn the loss of lives and terror that has taken place, we must also re-dedicate ourselves to ensuring Queen’s is a place where we can together imagine the paths to a safer and more peaceful world.

Embrace your depression

The following guest blog was written by Jae Moon, a 4th year life sciences student who has been battling depression since high school. Jae describes himself as a person who is curious about the true nature of things and enjoys applying evolutionary thinking. Upon meeting with Jae, I asked him if I could share his writing on my blog and he kindly agreed.


“Death is a cure, I tell myself, as I drag one leg over the ledge. It hangs there lifelessly while my other foot grasps the concrete roof with little friction. The wind is icy and forceful; it numbs my face and freezes my tears. The night sky is open and clean. The height of the building brings me closer to the stars and farther away from light pollution. I feel serenaded by ancient cosmic energy and think to myself: ‘what a night to die’. For whatever reason however, I cannot muster up the constitution to give myself up to gravity. Exhausted, I go home at 2AM and fall asleep.”

There have been many nights I pondered the rationale of dying – of why it would be a simple solution and solve all of my problems. Oftentimes, I used to think it was selfish to do so. I don’t anymore. It wasn’t my choice to be born, but it should only be my choice to die. I have been living in a society that emphasizes the need to be happy, all the while feeling clouded and darker. It was evident to me that I didn’t belong. I felt like a burden being the walking antithesis of everyone’s joy.

This all changed the summer of 2015.

One does not escape or recover from depression. One just successfully integrates it into their psyche and consciousness. My first step on the ‘road to revelations’ was when I fully accepted that I was depressed. So I began to let myself feel the full force of the symptoms in terms of dysphoria, lifelessness, emptiness, loneliness – this was by far the worst aspect – and so on. All this helped me grasp depression as a reality. I still remember being in my dark room, on a dark day, staring blankly at the ceiling, lifelessly. I would scream with my face buried in the pillows and clench my chest. I told myself, ‘Acceptance is always the first step’. It was a lot of emotional distress, but I always remembered that the next days would bring me clarity of thought – and to some extent, peace.

The defining quality of myself that helped me integrate my depression is my ability to let my mind run. This was mostly done through meditation. I began to psychoanalyze my own thoughts (meta-thinking, as they say) and break down my subconscious reasoning behind my emotions. I became the woodpecker of my own psyche – I dig and dig until I find the worm. For example, when I react with anger to some seemingly negligible event, I now stop to think why. If others see my action as an overreaction, then it is a question of sensitivity and exaggeration. If so, is the emotion itself rational? What does the topic represent to me such that it brings out this side of me? So then what psychological need am I trying to indulge by reacting in such a way? The way I see it, every reaction is a window to my subconscious. This applies to other people as well; I think a judgmental person’s spoken words describe more about themselves than they do the person being judged. This sort of meta-thinking was the catalyst to my mental growth. I am now a very self-aware and mindful person. I realized how my past affected me and how it was mirrored through my attitude and perspective.

With the clarity of thought that accompanied this mental growth, I realized that it’s okay to be who I am. Regardless of how I feel about myself, I shouldn’t resist who I am. Why wouldn’t I want to be what I am made for? I was treating my self the way I was treated by others when I was a child; they persuasively changed the image of my selfhood. I realized that every person has the opportunity to bring something new to the table. The reason why a particularly successful species is defined by the abundance and population size is because of the level of genetic variability they bring. Genetic variability – since we cannot predict the environment – is a safety net for the chance of the species responding adaptively to the environment. Thus, variability allows for a wider breadth of environmental challenges a species can survive. Anyway, this line of reasoning made me think that it’s okay to be different because it means that you have that much more you can bring to the table.

I think society views depression negatively because of its immediate symptoms. But this is only in the short term. In the long term, there are huge opportunities for self-growth and for opening one’s mind. In another way of putting it, the brain in ‘depression mode’ is sacrificing short term capacity for long term planning. I find the emphasis on happiness a little paradoxical because in a state of constant and consistent happiness, would it even be called happiness? It would just be the norm. My point is that without the lows you don’t even notice the peaks highs.

Throughout the past 4 years as I observed myself I couldn’t help but think why an organism becomes depressed. Is there an inherently adaptive function? Or is it rather an effect of a suboptimal cause? More relevantly put to myself, I think depression is a relic of a troubled past of traumatic events. Some people believe it’s in the genes, that epigenetic changes can be passed down to offspring, leaving them more predisposed. But this isn’t really why people become depressed, rather just a factor involved in making it more likely to occur. Depression is an effect; and the environmental input is the cause. In other words, I think depression is largely a circumstantial effect and based purely on individual experiences. Genes merely provide a template of behaviours and personality traits that can be modified throughout life with external input.

To make concepts more mechanical and verifiable, take the weather as an example: there has been enough research to diagnose individuals with Seasonal Affective Disorders (SADs). I get a case of the SADs too sometimes – all it takes is a dark, cloudy day. So, I bought a SunTouch light lamp as an artificial substitute for sunlight. This has helped me maintain a more stable mood for that day. This is an example of how the environment can influence our mood and cognition (whether it is done in this order, I don’t know). Now, imagine the influence of parental input. As offspring you have to have complete trust in your parents. I mean, what biological organism would forsake the direction of their genetic counterparts? But then, what are your parents influenced by? Culture, society, physical environment, culturally significant events… so on. The point is the past provides a rich context of interacting variables that leads to your cognitive self as it is now.

So I think it’s certainly more useful to treat depression as experience-based and environmental – at least when dealing with patients with depression. What I’ve come to realize during my time in the ditches so far is that there is a reason to everything. Something in my previous timeline has occurred, perhaps as a cumulative set of events that has put me where I am now in this spot. I think depression can be seen as a strong behaviour generator in that it inhibits most behaviours; hypersomnia, reduced motivation and activity. I think the reason for such behavioural dampening is because there is an inherent need of the brain to process all the information stored in the brain. In order to do this, it cuts out any further stimulation by rendering the organism immobile. The person then gets a chance to reevaluate their value systems, what they care about, who they are, and ultimately what they want in life. It’s almost as though the brain is rebooting itself. So why do I have this physiological need to reboot myself? I think happiness is a physio-emotional symptom that signals to cerebral organisms such as humans that the behavioural patterns (lifestyle, routine, etc) are detrimental to the organism. It means that something in that person’s life has to change. So this dampening effect over behaviour could be seen as a natural sensory deprivation to allow full processing of information. In this sense, we could define depression as an effect of cumulative unhappiness (or a higher punishment to reward ratio). The deprivation can leave the person thinking about what life needs to be for them to be happy, and can motivate them to mobilizing those changes.

Overall, it has been a very rough ride. That being said, I don’t think I would want to change any of it. As dark as I felt, the things that I learned about life and about myself are so valuable to me that it paints the whole experience positively. I still feel down from time to time and my view of death has become more…spiritual and mechanistic. Every organism that has ever lived has died – there is an energetic need that has to be fulfilled by coming into existence (i.e. being born), like a chemical reaction… but I digress. Anyway if there is a phrase of advice I can give anyone who is also depressed: Embrace it. There is a reason why you are depressed. Try to see the undertones that have made you depressed.

Jae Moon