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University student mental health care is at the tipping point


Mental disorders are treatable, but a key stumbling block towards positive campus responses in health care has been a lack of systematically collected data. (Photo by Miguel Henriques / Unsplash)

As a new crop of students enter university, the sense of hope and promise is tangible. While students are at an exciting developmental stage, as a researcher and practising clinical consultant to university student health services, I know that for some students the associated stress and new pressures will become overwhelming.

Several authoritative reports from Canada and the United Kingdom have drawn attention to increased demand for student mental health care that is straining university resources. Reports also point out that campus mental health services and initiatives are fragmented and inadequate to address the growing breadth and depth of student mental health need.

The tension between need for effective, accessible and engaging student mental care and the status quo in terms of resources has reached a tipping point. Such a state of affairs risks student well-being and academic success and has consequences for the university as evidenced by recent tragedies across different campuses in different countries. A key stumbling block toward change has been a relative lack of systematically collected data to help universities with the development of a coordinated and comprehensive system of student mental health care.

In the face of a seemingly changing university landscape and a relative lack of data, we have launched a new research initiative called “U-Flourish.” In collaboration with colleagues at Queen’s University and Oxford University, we are launching a longitudinal study to evaluate the scope of mental health need among undergraduate students and understand what factors determine different student mental health and academic outcomes.

As a multidisciplinary group of clinicians, academics and students, experienced in developing and evaluating mental health services and studying the onset of mental disorders, we know the importance of the university taking a lead role in the development of a system of student mental health care.

Competition has increased in universities, as enrollment and threshold grades for entry to professional and graduate schools have risen. (Photo by Alexis Brown / Unsplash)

Time of transition, critical period

One of the most important contributors to healthy individual growth and societal development is higher education. Success depends upon health, including mental health. The transition to university coincides with a critical period of accelerated biological, psychological and social development with the peak period of risk for onset of serious and persistent mental illness. The brain is undergoing accelerated growth and has heightened sensitivity to risk exposures commonly encountered by university students, such as stress, recreational drugs, alcohol and sleep problems.

University students are also exposed to a number of unique stresses related to financing their studies and making new social connections. Research finds that in Canada, younger students (under the age of 22) are driving undergraduate growth. Not only a rising number of international students, but also domestic students are studying away from home and their support network.

Competition has increased in Canadian universities and across the western world, as enrolment and threshold grades for entry to professional and graduate schools have risen.

Evidence suggests that not fitting into the predominant demographic at university and constant social media presence may be important psychosocial risk factors associated with mental health problems. Many students experience distress and their ability to cope is overwhelmed.

Serious and persistent mental illness typically emerges over childhood and adolescence. Researcher shows that 75 per cent of all mental disorders onset by the mid-twenties, and typically there is is a substantial delay between illness onset and first treatment contact. This delay is associated with progression to more complex disorders, dropping out of school, addiction and self-harm.

Emerging research underscores the substantial unmet need for screening and effective care of students. A large international study using World Health Organization surveys reported that one-fifth of college students met criteria for a 12-month mental disorder. Yet, treatment rates were exceedingly low and mental disorders were associated with higher rates of drop out.

Absence of evidence-based models

There is limited publicly available information about the outcomes of current student mental health services in Canada or the U.K. From what we as a research collective have observed, most campus mental health services do not have validated quality or outcome indicators embedded in routine care. These circumstances make it difficult to assess how effective current services are.

Student mental health services vary significantly across institutions in how they are organized, integrated and resourced. These variances reflect in part the absence of an evidence-based model guiding the development of student mental health care, and a lack of universal benchmarks for informing standards of care.

There is also a lack of consistency around approaches to determine and monitor the mental fitness of students to continue or return to studies after taking medical leave for a mental health reason.

Unique student needs

University mental health services have typically developed from short-term counselling services which are generally not adequately organized or resourced to systematically assess or respond to the full spectrum of university student mental health need. Compared to community-based care, student mental health services need to be more proactive, expeditious and preventive in nature.


University students are particularly disadvantaged in accessing timely and appropriate care as they move between university and home. (Photo by Alexis Brown / Unsplash)

University students are particularly disadvantaged in accessing timely and appropriate care as they move between university and home, and are at an age between child and adult services. Students often struggle with impairing and distressing symptoms that fall short of inclusion criteria for specialized community-based services.

It is likely that effective reform will mean not only re-organizing and strengthening existing services, but also developing new campus-based services and partnerships with specialty programs in the community based on clinical need.

Key principles for development

With an intent to help universities move forward, our research collective has set out key principles to guide the development of an integrated system of student mental health care moving forward. We propose that university mental health services should:

  1. Be accessible, evidence-based, culturally competent and developmentally appropriate;

  2. Have an engaging clinical triage at the student’s first point of contact that is linked to a properly resourced service, where intensity of care matches complexity of needs (stepped care);

  3. Have facilitated transitions between campus and community-based services;

  4. Have outcome and quality indicators embedded in routine care;

  5. Develop standards-of-care and fitness-to-study guidelines;

  6. Rely upon integrated research to inform development.

Determining risk factors

The U-Flourish research program aims to evaluate the scope of mental health need and identify what factors contribute to poor mental health and academic outcomes in university students and what might be important targets for early intervention and prevention initiatives on campuses.

Preliminary research found that almost one-third of students starting university at Queen’s screened positive for both clinically significant anxiety and depressive symptoms (45 per cent with functional impairment) and 18 per cent had significant sleep problems. Almost one-third of students had serious thoughts of ending their life and 6 per cent reporting having attempted suicide at least once. Mental illness, including having suicidal thoughts and self-harm, are treatable conditions. People can get help. Yet, in this study only 8.5 per cent of students indicated that they were receiving any form of treatment. Collectively, evidence points to a significant unmet need for mental health assessment and targeted intervention at entry to university.

The transition to university represents a critical opportunity for prevention through effective screening for mental health problems including suicide and self-harm, and to deliver appropriate evidence-based interventions at the right time.

To support positive outcomes for all students, researchers, clinicians and universities must work together and use the available evidence to put in place a co-ordinated system of mental health care that meets the needs of our students.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, you are not alone. If your life or someone else’s is in danger, call 911 for emergency services in Canada or the U.S. (or 999 in the U.K.). Or, in Canada, download The LifeLine App to find one-touch hotline crisis call, text and chat options and prevention and awareness tips; or call Canada Suicide Prevention Service (CSPS) at 1-833-456-4566.


Anne Duffy is a clinician-researcher in the Department of Psychiatry, Division of Student Wellness at Queen's University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation is seeking new academic contributors. Researchers wishing to write articles should contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca.

Working towards a sustainable future

Researchers from across Queen’s are making discoveries that help us protect our planet.

Image of Queen's University Biological Station
Queen's University Biological Station (Photo by Allen Tian)

Queen’s recognizes that climate change is one of the most pressing challenges of the 21st century, and it is helping to create a more sustainable world through the knowledge and innovations that are being produced by researchers in all areas of the university.

Across Queen’s, faculty members have dedicated themselves to researching questions connected to the environment and sustainability. Taking interdisciplinary approaches to topics as wide ranging as water quality, health, economics, and engineering, Queen’s researchers are making discoveries that will help make the future of our planet greener.

Several Queen’s faculty members are actively exploring the effects that human societies are having on the environment. For instance, Dr. Diane Orihel, Assistant Professor in the Biology Department and Queen’s National Scholar in Aquatic Ecotoxicology, is working to understand how chemicals effect the environment.  Currently, she is the principal investigator on a project that studies the impact of diluted bitumen, or “dilbit,” on fresh water.

Similar to Dr. Orihel, Dr. John P. Smol, Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change, uses lake sediment samples to unravel the history of environmental change in order to improve understanding of human impacts on aquatic ecosystems. Dr. Smol leads an international program in the field of paleolimnology that tracks long-term trends in climatic change and develops new approaches to studying water-quality problems, among other goals.  

Water quality is also a primary focus of the Beaty Water Research Centre, which investigates a variety of issues related to the environment. Four faculty members affiliated with the centre were recently awarded with the NSERC Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering. Drs. Pascale Champagne (Civil Engineering, Chemical Engineering), Michael Cunningham  (Chemical Engineering, Chemistry), Philip Jessop (Chemistry), and Warren Mabee (Geography and Planning, School of Policy Studies) were recognized with this prestigious award for their work in enhancing the value and sustainability of our natural renewable resources through collaboration. With the funding provided by the award, this team of researchers aims to design solutions, such as green industrial processes, to address problems caused by climate change.

Developing innovative solutions that protect the environment also motivates the research of Dr. Kerry Rowe, Canada Research Chair in Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Engineering. To help guard the environment from contamination by waste, Dr. Rowe is currently developing new guidelines and techniques for building waste-disposal sites.

In order to tackle the problems of climate change, society will need policy solutions as well as scientific innovations. That is where the work of Dr. Kyla S. Tienhaara, Canada Research Chair in Economy and Environment, comes in. Dr. Tienhaara studies government interventions in the economy through public policies that aim to achieve environmental sustainability. Through this research, Dr. Tienhaara aims to increase the environmental outcomes of future government spending initiatives.

Dr. Heather Castleden, Canada Research Chair in Reconciling Relationships for Health, Environments, and Communities, is addressing problems created by climate change by bringing together different systems of knowledge. By applying Indigenous and Western knowledge systems to research involving social and environmental justice and health equity, Dr. Castleden’s work aims to reconcile relationships between Indigenous peoples and Settler Canadians as well as society’s relationship with the land, water, and air that sustain us.

Beyond our individual researchers, Queen’s also has a number of research centres and institutes that investigate an array of different issues that bear on the environment and sustainability, such as the Queen’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy, the GeoEngineering Centre at Queen’s-RMC, and the Centre for Energy and Power Electronics Research (ePower).

To learn more about the many Queen’s researchers who are making discoveries that will help lead to a sustainable future, visit the new Queen’s research website.

Nobel Laureates share their thoughts on research success

Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative excites sold-out audience at Queen’s University.

  • Acclaimed journalist and author André Picard (left) interviews Nobel Laureate Martin Chalfie during the Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative event at Queen's University. (Photo by: Bernard Clark)
    Acclaimed journalist and author André Picard (left) interviews Nobel Laureate Martin Chalfie during the Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative event at Queen's University. (Photo by: Bernard Clark)
  • Following the one-on-one chat, Picard and Chalfie were joined on stage by Canada's Chief Science Advisor Mona Nemer, and Queen's University's own Nobel Laureate, Arthur B. McDonald.
    Following the one-on-one chat, Picard and Chalfie were joined on stage by Canada's Chief Science Advisor Mona Nemer, and Queen's University's own Nobel Laureate, Arthur B. McDonald. (Photo by: Bernard Clark)
  • The public discussion took place at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts at Queen's in front of a sold out audience, and over 2000 online viewers.
    The public discussion took place at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts at Queen's in front of a sold out audience, and over 2000 online viewers. (Photo by: Bernard Clark)
  • Dr. Chalfie met with groups of excited audience members following the public discussion.
    Dr. Chalfie met with groups of excited audience members following the public discussion. (Photo by: Bernard Clark)
  • Earlier in the day, Dr. Chalfie met with students, faculty, and staff at Ingenuity Labs.
    Earlier in the day, Dr. Chalfie met with students, faculty, and staff at Ingenuity Labs. (Photo by: Bernard Clark)
  • Students demonstrated various robotics projects for Dr. Chalfie during his tour of the new Ingenuity Labs space in Mitchell Hall.
    Students demonstrated various robotics projects for Dr. Chalfie during his tour of the new Ingenuity Labs space in Mitchell Hall. (Photo by: Bernard Clark)
  • Students, faculty, and staff also toured Dr. Chalfie through cutting-edge new laboratory spaces at the Beaty Water Research Centre.
    Students, faculty, and staff also toured Dr. Chalfie through cutting-edge new laboratory spaces at the Beaty Water Research Centre. (Photo by: Bernard Clark)
  • Following the tours, Dr. Chalfie met with a group of Queen's graduate students for an exclusive roundtable discussion on "success and failure at the research frontier".
    Following the tours, Dr. Chalfie met with a group of Queen's graduate students for an exclusive roundtable discussion on "success and failure at the research frontier". (Photo by: Bernard Clark)

A sold-out crowd packed Queen’s University’s Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts for the rare opportunity to hear two Nobel Laureates discuss their roads to research success, together with Canada’s Chief Science Officer Mona Nemer, and award-winning journalist and author André Picard.

Nobel Laureate Martin Chalfie, who was awarded the prize for chemistry in 2008, visited Queen’s as part of the first-ever Canadian tour of the Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative (NPII). Organized by Nobel Media, in partnership with biopharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca, the NPII is an international outreach program striving to connect Nobel Laureates with scientific and student communities at universities and research centres worldwide.

Queen's Principal and Vice-Chancellor Patrick Deane talking with Nobel Laureate Martin Chalfie.
Queen's Principal Patrick Deane in conversation with Nobel Laureate Martin Chalfie.

“We are honoured to host the Nobel Inspiration Initiative and I’m excited to know that among our live audience and viewers online, we have potential future Nobel Prize Laureates who will be responsible for discoveries that make our world a better place,” says Patrick Deane, Queen’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor, during his opening remarks. “At Queen’s, we believe in the fundamental value of research and want to create an environment where researchers can push boundaries, test limits, fail safely and take risks to achieve the kind of success talked about here today.”

Picard moderated the engaging and often humorous 90-minute dialogue, which touched on the guests’ own research journeys, and topics ranging from basic research, gender imbalance in science fields, commercialization, and public trust in scientists. Richard Reznick, Dean of the Queen’s Faculty of Health Sciences, first introduced Picard and Chalfie, who spoke one-on-one before Dr. Nemer and Queen’s own Nobel Laureate, Arthur B. McDonald, joined in for expanded discussion and an audience Q&A session.

“The Nobel Prize doesn’t necessarily go to the smartest scientist or the most productive, or the one with the biggest group or most published papers; it goes, in my opinion, to scientists who do things that change the way we do science or we think about the world,” says Dr. Chalfie. “Furthermore, most people don’t sit up at night thinking, How am I going to win a prize? The reward for many of us is in the discovery.”

Queen's University's Nobel Laureate Arthur B. McDonald meets with audience members following the panel discussion.
Queen's University's Nobel Laureate Arthur B. McDonald meets with audience members following the Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative public discussion.

Dr. McDonald adds: “The Nobel Prize is the icing on the cake. The real victory is in the breakthrough.”

The panelists spoke at length about the formative years of their careers, discussing early obstacles. Dr. Chalfie brought up an early-career project that did not work out and drove him to abandon the field temporarily, which stood in contrast to part of the NPII public event’s title, Failure, persistence and joy: finding the right balance for research success.

“I was very fortunate to get back into it,” he says. “When I experienced this early disappointment… I didn’t feel I should ask people for help. I didn’t have people telling me that the first time you do things, you’re going to fail. Persistence has to be coupled with mentorship and support.”

As part of the day-long NPII event, Dr. Chalfie sat with some of Queen’s most promising graduate and post-doctoral students, and early-career researchers, prior to the public dialogue for an exclusive roundtable discussion about success and failure at the research frontier. He also toured two cutting-edge, multi-disciplinary research and learning spaces on campus – the Beaty Water Research Centre and Ingenuity Labs at newly-opened Mitchell Hall – meeting with graduate and post-doctoral students, staff, and faculty.

During the public conversation, Picard posed the issue of the gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields to the panelists for their comments.

Mona Nemer meets with audience members following the NPII public discussion.
Canada's Chief Science Advisor Mona Nemer speaks with audience members following the public discussion.

“I’m uplifted when I look at the audience today and see so many young people,” says Dr. Nemer. “I’m looking at the many women in the audience and I want you all to know there is a place for you in these fields. Don’t let anyone stop you.”

Dr. McDonald agreed, stating that his field – physics—“needs a revolution of women in the discipline”. He also urged current students to try a variety of things while in university to discover where their passions may lie.

“Science is fun. It’s an adventure,” he says. “Embrace it!”

The event coincides with the launch of a brand new website highlighting Queen’s University’s vast complement of research pursuits and achievements. The site tells the stories behind research happening right here at Queen’s and highlights how research affects our lives and helps to shape our collective knowledge about the world.

For those who could not be among those present at the event, or among over 2000 viewers who joined our live online broadcast, you can view a video recording of the event now. A captioned version of the video will be available in the coming days.

Celebrating engineering excellence

  • 125th Anniversary Queen's Engineering Excellence Faculty Awards
    Family members of Barington Batchelor – Wayne Batchelor, Nicola Batchelor, Roger Batchelor – accept his 125th Anniversary Queen's Engineering Excellence Faculty Awards, from Amir Fam, Associate Dean (Research & Graduate Studies), Brian Frank, Associate Dean (Teaching & Learning), and Dean Kevin Deluzio.
  • 125th Anniversary Queen's Engineering Excellence Faculty Awards
    John Hanes receives the 125th Anniversary Queen's Engineering Excellence Faculty Award from Brian Frank, Associate Dean (Teaching & Learning), Amir Fam, Associate Dean (Research & Graduate Studies), and Dean Kevin Deluzio.
  • 125th Anniversary Queen's Engineering Excellence Faculty Awards
    Kerry Rowe is one of 14 faculty members from the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science to receive the 125th Anniversary Queen's Engineering Excellence Faculty Award.
  • 125th Anniversary Queen's Engineering Excellence Faculty Awards
    Genevieve Dumas receives her 125th Anniversary Queen's Engineering Excellence Faculty Award during a special ceremony hosted at Mitchell Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 18.
  • 125th Anniversary Queen's Engineering Excellence Faculty Awards
    Mark Green, Vice Dean (Graduate Studies and Recruitment), receives a 125th Anniversary Queen's Engineering Excellence Faculty Award for his work in engineering and teaching.

The Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science continued to celebrate its 125th anniversary by recognizing outstanding faculty members during a special event on Wednesday, Sept. 18.

The 125th Anniversary Queen's Engineering Excellence Faculty Awards, hosted in Mitchell Hall, recognized the contributions of 14 faculty members, past and present, for engineering and teaching excellence.

“Queen’s Engineering has a long tradition of excellent faculty members – leaders in their field, leaders in the classrooms, lecture halls, and research labs, and leaders in their communities,” says Kevin Deluzio, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science. “The 125th anniversary was a perfect time to recognize each of these amazing individuals for their contributions to engineering and Queen’s.”

Each of the award winners was nominated by their peers.

The winners are:

  • Tim Bryant
  • Barrington Batchelor
  • John Cartledge
  • Michael Cunningham
  • Mark Diederichs
  • Genevieve Dumas
  • Mark Green 
  • John Hanes
  • Patrick Oosthuizen
  • Raymond Price
  • Kerry Rowe
  • Paresh Sen 
  • Carolyn Small
  • Ralph Whitney

Two of the awards – Barrington Batchelor and Carolyn Small – were awarded posthumously. Both Dr. Batchelor and Dr. Small were pioneers in their fields and left a lasting impact both at Queen’s and the broader engineering community.

[Barington Batchelor]Dr. Batchelor’s 27-year career in the Department of Civil Engineering was marked by his pioneering research, his commitment to excellence, and his dedication to equity in race relations. Born in Jamaica and educated at the University of Edinburgh and Imperial College London, Dr. Batchelor was one of the first faculty members of African descent in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science. His work on bridge deck design was transformative in the industry and was a driving force behind Ontario developing its own bridge design code. Dr. Batchelor also served as an important adviser on race relations and diversity, both at Queen’s and nationally. He personally mentored many faculty members from diverse cultures and had a particularly warm spot for international students. 

[Carolyn Small]Dr. Small (Sc’73) was a pioneer for women in engineering at Queen's. She was the first female graduate from Queen’s Engineering to be appointed to the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and was a leader in biomedical research, curriculum development, and the teaching of mechanical engineering design. She was known for her innovative approaches to teaching and research. Among her proudest accomplishments was the development of an engineering course in design techniques that challenged students’ creativity and critical thinking. Her course MECH 212 became one of the department’s flagship courses and was, in later years, a foundation for the current design program in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Dr. Small's collaborative spirit helped guide the Human Mobility Research Centre, which has become renowned for interdisciplinary research for innovative treatment strategies for bone and joint disorders. A room at the centre bears her name and is a proud reminder of her contributions to innovation and partnership in design. 

A full description of each of the honourees is available on the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science website.

Lasting peace from the outside in

Ashwini Vasanthakumar, a professor in the Faculty of Law, is looking into the rights and responsibilities exiles have to the country they have left behind, as well as the responsibilities of their host country in facilitating justice for these individuals, through her SSHRC-funded project. (University Communications)

Thomas Merton once said, “Peace demands the most heroic labor and the most difficult sacrifice. It demands greater heroism than war.”

Many countries which have survived civil wars might relate to Merton’s quote. The battles, death, and destruction are terrible, and yet picking up the pieces after the fighting is done can be a similarly overwhelming challenge.

One of the unanswered questions during these internal conflicts is what to do about those who have fled or been exiled to foreign countries and settled there, also known as diasporas. These communities play different roles in their countries of origin: they might enhance economic growth, support resistance efforts, or try to resolve conflicts. When conflict ends and it is time to pursue transitional justice, it is difficult to determine what role these diasporas should play in those processes, and what rights and responsibilities they have in their home country.

This is the focus of Professor Ashwini Vasanthakumar’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) funded project, “Transitional Justice as Transnational Justice: partnering with diasporas to secure justice from afar.” 

“Through this project, I will look at what rights and responsibilities exiles have to the country they have left behind, as well as the responsibilities of their host country in facilitating justice for these individuals,” she says. “Transitional justice is challenging because it looks at how we right wrongs, rebuild society, and foster trust – it is both forward and backward looking.”

This is a tricky topic because oftentimes the exile community functions as an official opposition to the government back home. For instance, Chilean exiles in the 1970s sustained solidarity movements opposing the Pinochet regime. Others, like Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei, were able to exploit their presence outside of the country to build support and claim power. These dynamics can create an adversarial and fraught relationship upon which to try and build lasting peace.

In her research, Vasanthakumar is focusing on the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in Toronto, Canada. The Sri Lankan civil war, which ended in 2009, was Asia’s longest running civil war and it created a large Tamil diaspora. She first became interested in the war through work she completed in her undergraduate degree and fieldwork with Tamil communities. “The Sri Lankan civil war illustrates a lot of the complexities in these cases, and this is what makes it interesting to study; it is also an ongoing situation, so there is greater scope for research to inform policy or public debates.”

Some general principles that Vasanthakumar seeks to confirm through her research is whether, for instance, there are general expectations that exile communities should have in these situations. Do they have a right to be “heard” by the government, should they have a say in how justice is administered following civil wars, and does the Canadian government has a role in facilitating this on behalf of exile communities it hosts? “Suppose the conclusion is that diasporas have rights to be involved in transitional justice,” she says. “The Canadian government has international obligations to promote peace abroad – could this be a way to fulfill those obligations?”

To inform her theory, Vasanthakumar will be conducting qualitative research among members of the Tamil diaspora in Toronto. Along for the trip will be two research assistants, supported by her $33,649 SSHRC grant, who will have the opportunity to build their interview skills with clients in need of justice. She also aims to present at several workshops and conferences at the conclusion of the project.

“While I am using the Tamil diaspora as a case study, with future research funding I hope to investigate other case studies and refine the theory,” she says. 

Vasanthakumar is also writing a book on diaspora politics entitled, The Ethics of Exile: a political theory of diaspora, which is under contract with Oxford University Press and is based on her PhD dissertation. 

This article was originally published by the Faculty of Law.

Why Canada’s political system makes it difficult to fight floods

THE CONVERSATION: Canadian history and international relations theory provide perspective on why coordinating flood management is difficult in Canada and what can be done about it.

[Traffic sign in flood waters]
A traffic sign pokes up above the surface of flood waters. (Photo by Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash)

Floods are some of the most damaging weather-related events in Canada, occurring so frequently that they’re the most commonly experienced natural hazard. In recent years, Canadians have witnessed a number of floods of historic proportions, largely in Eastern Canada.

Scant attention is paid to how history has shaped our approach to flood management in Canada. More specifically, little consideration is given to how our system of government handles hazard management, and how the current situation can be improved through the application of what’s known as “international relations theory.”

What’s in a theory?

Addressing events such as floods, wildfires, tsunamis and rising sea levels causes what’s known as “collective action problems” in international relations theory, which focuses on international governance. These events require co-ordination between multiple entities, usually sovereign governments, and this can prove difficult.

Tackling these hazards is hard because it requires a variety of states, each with their own interests and goals, to come together to address a common issue, provide a common good or achieve a collective objective.

These problems also suffer from what international relations theory identifies as the free-rider problem: Some states can reap the benefits of the collective actions of others while not fully committing to paying the associated costs themselves. Effectively, they get a free ride. For example, U.S. President Donald Trump claims that Canada and other American allies are free-riding on their NATO defence spending obligations.

There have been a variety of attempts to solve the problems associated with the need to take collective action, including the establishment of specialized international organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as well as regulatory regimes like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Canadian floods & fires

The recurring effects of flooding in Eastern Canada and wildfires in Western Canada are examples of collective action problems within the boundaries of Canada.

Canadian history can give us better perspective on why co-ordinating flood management, in particular, has proven so difficult in Canada and what can be done about it.

The administrative makeup of Canada ensures that roles, responsibilities and accountability for a host of issues — like emergency management, building codes, land-use planning and the administration of renewable resources — are spread among three levels of government and other entities, including private firms.

The British North America Act and, later, the 1982 Constitution Act, assigned the management of forests and water to the provinces and territories.

This ensures that an often confusing host of local, provincial or territorial and federal ministries, departments and agencies have authority over how the hazards of wildfires and floods are managed.

In the case of forest management, there are 13 provincial and territorial ministries and one federal body that oversee Canada’s forests.

The situation is far more convoluted for flood management, as a greater number of ministries, agencies, departments, authorities, councils and other entities shoulder responsibility.

A flood of authorities

In Ontario alone, this includes 36 conservation authorities, the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, 444 municipalities, the federal government — for waterways like the Trent-Severn, Rideau Canal and St. Lawrence Seaway, as well as Indigenous communities — and other owners of private flood management infrastructure.

Across the rest of the country, there is a similar mix of provincial ministries, federal, provincial and municipal agencies and departments, basin and watershed planning and advisory councils and private flood management infrastructure owners. All of them have varying levels of conflicting responsibilities and authority.

In most jurisdictions, there is no single entity in charge of flood risk. Within larger entities, there are separate departments that deal with various aspects of flood risk, from flood mapping, hydrology, flood modelling and flood defence to conservation and disaster assistance.

Flood management in Canada, in fact, is rife with the co-ordination problems highlighted in international relations theory and seen globally when it comes to combating other impacts of climate change and extreme weather events.

‘Patchwork quilt’

There are three major issues that highlight collective action problems in the governance of flood risk in Canada:

1) The patchwork of entities responsible for governing floods have a hard time communicating and co-ordinating among themselves.

2) The winding-down of the federal Flood Damage Reduction Program, Canada’s de facto coordinating body for flood governance, created a two-decade gap of communication between the provinces and the federal government. The program was significant because it set standards and facilitated cost-sharing. It was a co-ordinating body, setting minimum national standards for flood plain mapping and disaster assistance.

The federal government attempted to remedy the communication and co-ordination problems by earmarking $200 million in the 2014 budget for the creation of the National Disaster Mitigation Program.

It successfully set out flood mapping guidelines, but funding to the program ceases in 2020 and there’s been no announcement of a renewal.

3) Canadian flood risk governance suffers from the aforementioned free-rider problem. Municipalities control what gets built and where, enjoying the permit fees and property tax revenue from those decisions, but do not directly fund disaster assistance when catastrophe strikes. Instead, the provincial and federal governments do.

Private developers also exercise power over these decisions. But again, they don’t directly pay the costs for disaster assistance when their developments are flooded.

In fact, there are few incentives for decision-makers to pay the costs associated with making different choices when it comes to development and flood risk.

What to do?

So are there any solutions contained within international relations theory when it comes to the flood management dilemma?

International relations theory informs us that collective action is difficult when dealing with situations where multiple actors at various levels of authority are involved.

It also suggests that the creation of dedicated institutions to assist with co-ordination can help and is precisely what is needed for flood risk governance in Canada.

The provinces and territories should establish a directorate or centre that would serve as a central hub for flood management and oversight in their respective jurisdictions.

The federal government should make the National Disaster Mitigation Program permanent and continue to restore flood-related communication, co-ordination, standard setting and cost sharing with the provinces, territories and other stakeholders. The program should create a holistic, risk management-based national flood management program.

We should not delay further action on the co-ordination of flood management strategies in Canada, especially given the recurring deluge of impacts on individuals and communities across the country.


Korey Pasch is a PhD Candidate in Political Science and International Relations at Queen's University, and Glenn McGillivray is Managing Director, Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, at Western University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation is seeking new academic contributors. Researchers wishing to write articles should contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca.

Disturbing the peace – Meet Luissa Vahedi

[Luissa Vahedi]
Luissa Vahedi has been studying the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti as part of her master's in epidemiology, offered through the Department of Public Health Sciences at Queen's.

When you think of peacekeeping missions you might imagine blue helmeted troops handing out candy to children, and field hospitals helping the sick while distributing food and water.

But there are unseen challenges in introducing a large group of predominantly male soldiers into this type of environment for months or years at a time.

Luissa Vahedi has been studying the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti as part of her masters in epidemiology – a field which focuses on the determinants of public health.

“As the mission wound down in 2017, there were anecdotal reports of sexual interactions between peacekeepers and local women,” she says. “My research aims to understand how these relationships occur and what could be done to support the women that have given birth to children or have been exposed to sexual abuse and exploitation. Examining the legacy of this peace operation in Haiti is very timely and will help us understand how to prevent human rights violations within future peacekeeping operations.”

When she was first considering masters studies two years ago, Vahedi's connected with Susan Bartels, an associate professor of Emergency Medicine with a cross-appointment in Public Health Sciences at Queen’s, who had a funding opportunity to study peacekeeping. The research strongly related to Vahedi's interests, as she previously volunteered at a sexual assault centre and wanted to research more about the intersection of health and gender. Dr. Bartels eventually became Vahedi's supervisor, alongside Heather Stuart, a professor in Public Health Sciences, Psychiatry and Rehabilitation Therapy, as well as the Bell Canada Chair Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research.

The project involved analyzing data gathered from Haitians who voluntarily completed surveys through tablets provided by the research teams. The surveys provided broad prompts, asking the participants to tell the researchers a story about what it was like to live near UN bases. After this, the participants self-interpret their experiences which provided rich qualitative and quantitative data to Vahedi and the team.

“You get to go back to the story and contextualize those numbers with the actual lived experiences of these women and girls,” she says. “Health is comprised of physical, emotional, social, and political factors, and projects like this provide greater understanding as to how those factors affect daily behaviors, population patterns, and who we are as people. Through this degree I have learned practical skills in data analysis that are very transferable to both public health and in policy making.”

Using the data, Vahedi has built a regression model to try and predict where these interactions were geographically more likely to take place during the peacekeeping mission, and to understand how people's perceptions of these sexual interactions affects the legitimacy of the UN within Haiti.

Preparing for this project involved reading broadly about political science, the history of Haiti, and other related works. While this wasn’t something Vahedi expected as she started her research, she feels the opportunity has helped her to better round out her education and keep her open to new learning opportunities – and, besides, reading is one of her passions.

As she nears the end of her program, Vahedi is preparing for a year off from school to give her time and space to prepare a PhD application. She hopes to continue her studies in epidemiology or public health, while advocating for the use of epidemiological methods to help improve health outcomes for people in fragile states such as Haiti.

“Graduate studies can be stressful, so it has made all the difference for me that I have found a department that is supportive and had the opportunity to work with supervisors who want to see me grow and develop,” she says. “I knew it was a place for me because the campus is beautiful, it is housed in a really great city, and the public health sciences department at Queen’s has been so amazing. Working on a project that I feel very passionate about has been especially gratifying, and I am very privileged and grateful to have this opportunity.”

Hear more from Luissa Vahedi on a recent edition of the Grad Chat podcast on 101.9 CFRC.

Learn more about the Epidemiology program. 

This article was originally published by the School of Graduate Studies.

This is your brain on advertising

Queen’s neuroscience professor Susan Boehnke explains what’s possible in the emerging field of neuromarketing.

[Advertising in Times Square]
Queen's Executive Education at Smith School of Business has launched the Essentials of Neuroscience for Marketers program. The two-day session, Jan. 16  and 17, 2020 in Toronto, gives marketing leaders a practical understanding of neuromarketing and how to use it in their businesses. (Photo: Joshua Earle / Unsplash

NOTE: This article has been updated as the two-day session will now be held Jan. 16  and 17, 2020, instead of Oct. 3 and 4.

Everyone in advertising knows about John Wanamaker. The 19th century American department store magnate famously declared: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is I don’t know which half.” If only neuromarketing were around in Wanamaker’s day, his ad buys might not have been as wasteful.

Neuromarketing uses eye tracking and other brain science technology to better understand what consumers like and how they buy. But it’s still relatively new, and misconceptions about its capabilities abound.

To help separate science from fiction, Queen’s Executive Education at Smith School of Business has launched the Essentials of Neuroscience for Marketers program. The two-day session, Jan. 16  and 17, 2020 in Toronto, gives marketing leaders a practical understanding of neuromarketing and how to use it in their businesses. The program’s lead instructor, Susan Boehnke, assistant professor and neuroscientist at Queen’s Centre for Neuroscience Studies, recently discussed the promise of neuromarketing – what it can do, what it can’t, and what to know before you buy in.

Question: Do you sense a growing interest among marketers in using neuroscience?

Susan Boehnke: I would say so, yes. I just compiled a list of most of the active neuromarketing companies out there for our Executive Education program, which is one of the takeaways attendees are going to have from the course. Right now, it’s a bit of a Wild West in terms of companies offering these services. You have some solid companies that have emerged, mostly out of academic labs. They tend to have a degree of credibility. But you also have a lot of entrepreneurs just opening up shop, buying off-the-shelf technology, and making claims about what they can measure.

Q: Why the fascination with neuromarketing?

SB: For a long time, companies determined whether people liked their advertising or packaging by asking them in a focus group or with a survey. These are still useful methods. You do need to ask people what they think. The problem is that people can’t always articulate why it is they feel a certain way, why it is they behave certain ways and why they make certain decisions. The hope when people started to apply neuroscience technologies to marketing was that you could get an objective measure of those things that people can't articulate. What people say in focus groups is clouded by cultural things or simply wanting to give the answer they think the experimenter wants to hear.

Q: What neuroscience technologies are being used in marketing?

SB: Eye tracking is one. There’s also biometrics – like galvanic skin response and heart rate. If you want to measure the brain more directly, the two methods are: electroencephalography, or EEG, where you have electrodes over the head to record the collective yelling of a whole lot of neurons together; and functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. This is brain scanning where you can actually look at detailed change in blood flow throughout the brain. Change in blood flow is used as a proxy for brain activity.

Q: What are some of the upsides and downsides of these methods?

SB: EEG has deep roots in academic neuroscience and goes back decades. The good thing about EEG is that you get a continuous signal. You can know second by second how these signals are changing as people are watching, say, a video ad. The problem with EEG is that you don't know exactly where the signals are coming from in the brain. fMRI does provide really good spatial localization. You can say we saw more activity in certain areas of the brain, for example the ventromedial prefrontal cortex or the hippocampus, in response to one ad compared to another. Certain areas are more directly involved in decision-making processes, others in memory or in regulating our emotions. But you can't exactly say when those signals occurred on a millisecond-by-millisecond basis.

Q: What about eye tracking?

SB: If you’re an ad agency, why wouldn’t you want to see where people are looking at your ads? One issue, though, is that what people are looking at doesn’t necessarily reflect where they are attending. As an example, think of being at a cocktail party. You’re looking at the person you are having a conversation with but your attention has drifted to the back of the room where your ex-girlfriend is talking to another guy. So you’re looking at the person in front of you but that doesn’t mean you’re processing anything that person says because your attention has drifted. There is some cutting-edge gaze modelling happening in academia using big datasets that may help sort this out in the future.

Q: How might neuroscience be used in advertising?

SB: Let’s say you have a print ad and you’re going to use eye tracking to see where people are looking. You may find that people aren’t actually paying a lot of attention to a certain part of the ad that, creatively, you are trying to highlight. It looks like people are being attracted to, let’s say, a contrast line in the visual display of the ad and therefore not looking at the product. So then you go back to creative and change that contrast line a bit, and that might allow people to naturally go up to where you want them to look. You can also study a person’s brain signals with EEG and say, OK, when they are looking at this particular spot on the ad, what are their brain signals indicating about their level of attention or engagement?  And what does that mean?

Q: What can’t neuroscience do for marketers?

SB: It can't read minds. You can’t actually read people’s thoughts. I think sometimes there’s a belief that neuroscience can do more than it can do. I can't overstate the limitations of these technologies. But you can get signals that have been shown to be predictive of future buying behaviour, and that's why I think people are buying into neuromarketing.

Q: So the capabilities go beyond just telling us whether or not consumers like a particular ad?

SB: Neuroscience, to some degree, will give you insights into what engages people, but no one technology on its own is going to give you a simple, reliable explanation. The key, however, is in the design of the experiment – having an expert who can actually properly design an experiment that will give you meaningful insights. It is about choosing the right groups to compare and looking at signals from a group of people that is sufficient to provide you with some reliable and valid inferences. Take the example we just discussed about using eye tracking of a print ad. Neuroscientists have to do some interpreting to get the results, which is why it’s critical to have a neuroscientist with some expertise in vision and visual biases to interpret what’s going on.

Q: Can you point to any studies that have shown neuromarketing's effectiveness?

SB: I’ll give you an example of a study that I took my students through last year in my Neuromarketing class at Queen’s. It was done by neuroscientists at a university in Germany. They were interested in seeing if you could use signals from fMRI to predict buying behaviour for Duplo chocolate, which is one of those impulse buys sold at every checkout of every grocery store in Germany. They put women in an MRI and presented them with different merchandising displays for Duplo and asked the women whether they liked them and would buy this chocolate.

Then they test marketed these different merchandising displays all over Germany and got the Duplo buying data from each of these stores. And they were able to show that they could come up with an algorithm of the different brain signals that were involved in the reward and decision-making pathways – and that this actually predicted which merchandising displays would be most effective. So the fMRI signals were better at forecasting sales than the women’s verbal answers.      

Q: What are the ethical considerations for marketers using neuroscience?

SB: There are some perils but part of them I think are unfounded. They are under the assumption that we can actually manipulate people's minds. What neuromarketing can do is basically make ads that were created by advertising creative people maybe slightly better, or decide which ads are better. It’s just another tool for advertisers. Now, that being said, there are things to consider such as vulnerable populations. So imagine people with pathological gambling addiction or shopping addiction. If you’re specifically trying to target the things that are going to make these people even more vulnerable, that's a problem. But I question whether the technology is actually able to do that. . . yet.

Another issue that will need to be considered is privacy of the data. Who owns the neural data that neuromarketing companies record from subjects? A great example relevant in fMRI work is the presence of pre-existing conditions, such as a brain tumour. What if this was shared with insurance companies? What if the company did not disclose this incidental finding to the subject? What if they did it inappropriately? This is not too much of a problem now since the vast majority of fMRI studies are done in partnership with academic institutions, where there is ethical oversight. However, these kinds of issues should be covered by comprehensive regulation ahead of neurotech development that would make neuroimaging devices more accessible to industry.

Q: What are some issues marketers should consider before they hire the services of a neuromarketing firm?

SB: I worry that some companies will buy an off-the-shelf EEG system and software, and the company selling that system says, ‘Oh, here’s a canned signal, and we’re calling that signal engagement.’ And there are those companies out there. That worries me because in neuroscience good experimental design and interpretation is key. So I think the number one thing people have to look for when they source a company is, Do they have real neuroscientists who can think through these issues? You want to be assured the company’s work is standing on the shoulders of all that basic research that was done in academic labs.

If I was a marketer hiring a neuromarketing firm, I would say, ‘Let me be the first subject in the study so I see exactly what you’re doing.’ Obviously they wouldn’t count the results but I would definitely want to be subject number one so I can vet their methods.

Learn more about neuroscience and neuromarketing at Queen’s Executive Education’s Essentials of Neuroscience for Marketers, Jan. 16  and 17, 2020 in Toronto.

This article was originally published by Smith Business Insight.

Genetic variation: a key to survival

Queen’s researchers warn that loss of genetic variation means species are less adaptable to climate change.

Queen’s University researcher Vicki Friesen (Biology) and former postdoctoral fellow Debbie Leigh are sounding the alarm over the increasing loss of the genetic variation that allows species to adapt to the rapid and drastic environmental changes being generated by human activity.

Professor Vicki Friesen

Genetic variation is part of what makes individuals different. In plants and animals this can lead to differences in how they look as well as important differences in migration behavior, flowering time, or reproductive success. These differences within a species allow for adaptation to change.

Drs. Friesen and Leigh’s research has shown that genetic variation within species has declined by six per cent since the industrial revolution, which means species are less adaptable to climate change and, therefore, more vulnerable to extinction.

Professor Debbie Leigh

“We are losing populations, and, in some cases, we are losing entire species,” Dr. Friesen says. “Loss of genetic variation increases the risk of extinction, especially on islands, where the loss of genetic variation is higher than on continents.”

For example, in Galapagos finches, variation in beak size enables large-beaked birds to access a new food source during drought. These individuals survive droughts while those with smaller beaks do not. Dr. Friesen adds that, to prevent further loss, we need to reconnect isolated populations and help wild populations grow to combat climate change.

“We can’t be calm about this. Climate change is affecting our world right now, and the outlook for future generations is bleak,” Dr. Friesen says. “The loss of biodiversity is actually an even bigger problem than the climate crisis, and it’s irreversible. But we don’t hear as much about it. There is a rising level of awareness and anxiety about these issues among scientists.”

The research was published in Evolutionary Applications.

Queen’s researchers recognized by Governor General

Three academics honoured for their work on bullying, mental health, and the Arctic.

  • John Smol and Governor General Julie Payette
    John Smol (Biology, Environmental Studies) receives the Polar Medal from Governor General Julie Payette. Photo: Sgt Johanie Maheu, Rideau Hall — at Rideau Hall.
  • Wendy Craig and Governor General Julie Payette
    Wendy Craig (Psychology) is congratulated by Governor General Julie Payette after being appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada. (Photo: Sgt Johanie Maheu, Rideau Hall)
  • Heather Stuart and Governor General Julie Payette
    Heather Stuart (Public Health Sciences) is congratulated after being named a Member of the Order of Canada by Governor General Julie Payette. (Photo: Sgt Johanie Maheu, Rideau Hall)

Wendy Craig (Psychology) was named an Officer of the Order of Canada, Heather Stuart (Public Health Sciences) was named a Member of the Order of Canada, while John Smol was honoured with the Polar Medal. The Polar Medal is awarded to persons who have rendered extraordinary services in the polar regions and Canada’s North.

“Drs. Craig, Stuart and Smol are working in three important research areas that are making a difference to people across the country and around the world,” says Principal and Vice-Chancellor Patrick Deane. “These awards show the breadth of Queen’s research and the significance of academic work in addressing real world problems.”

Dr. Smol is one of the world’s foremost experts on environmental change. A Canada Research Chair and professor of biology and environmental studies, Dr. Smol has been at the vanguard of scientific discovery related to lake ecosystems for more than 30 years. By studying sediment cores, he determines how lakes have responded to climate change and other human stressors. His research, which includes studies on the effects of climate change in the Canadian North, has led to tangible policy changes and heightened public awareness.

“I am deeply honoured to receive this medal, although frankly the real credit must go to a very dedicated group of students and colleagues whom I have been honoured to work with over the years” Dr. Smol says. “However, there is much work left to do, as Northern Peoples and the ecosystems on which they depend are on the frontline of climatic and other environmental change.”

The Order of Canada is one of Canada’s highest civilian honours and recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation.

Dr. Craig is an anti-bullying champion who promotes healthy relationships. She is recognized internationally for her research on victimization and its impact on youth. She has shown exceptional commitment to translating research into practice, notably as the co-founder of PREVNet, a national network promoting safe and healthy relationships that has engaged in knowledge mobilization projects, reaching many communities across Canada. Her expertise is sought widely, notably by the World Health Organization, the United Nations and UNICEF.

“I am truly overwhelmed by this honour,” Dr. Craig says. “I have always done my work collaboratively with fellow researchers and students and so this recognition belongs to many. I am particularly grateful for my collaboration with Dr. Debra Pepler with whom I co-founded PREVNet.”

Dr. Stuart, the Bell Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair, is a champion of mental health in Canada. She has worked tirelessly to shed light on the stigma surrounding mental illness and its impact on recovery. She is an advocate as well as a researcher, advancing the mental health conversation across the country through her instrumental roles in such national initiatives as Bell Let’s Talk and the Mental Health Commission’s anti-stigma program. Driven by compassion, she is leading the charge for Canadians to become agents of change.

“This is a tremendous honour,” Dr. Stuart says, “and one that shines a light on the importance of mental health advocacy and mental health research — two areas that are often underrepresented in the Canadian consciousness.”

For more information on the Order of Canada awards, visit the website.


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