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Mental Health: An Evergreen Priority at Queen’s

The following item was first published on the Principal's Blog.

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.

[Principal Daniel Woolf]
Daniel Woolf is principal and vice-chancellor of Queen's University.

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.

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.