The development of the Okanagan mental health and wellbeing task force

As the McMaster community dives into the second semester of an unprecedented academic year, the newly created Okanagan mental health and wellbeing task force has also been gearing up for its launch. 

The Okanagan mental health and wellbeing task force was created from the recommendations of McMaster’s virtual learning task force. The virtual learning task force, co-chaired by Dean of Engineering Ishwar Puri and Dean of Social Sciences Jeremiah Hurley, consisted of over 30 faculty, staff and students that collected feedback from the McMaster community about the virtual learning experience. Feedback included over 3,000 responses from students and instructors to the MacPherson Institute’s Fall 2020 Experience Survey.

The task force’s final report, released in November 2020, provided 21 recommendations to improve the virtual learning experience. Recommendations included immediate actions for the winter 2021 term, especially highlighting the need for stronger supports for mental health and well-being. Although the survey respondents rated their overall learning experience to be fairly positive, many instructors and students shared feelings of being overwhelmed

“These unprecedented times have pushed the task force to rethink what McMaster’s commitment to academic excellence means by developing recommendations intended to alleviate students, faculty and staff feeling overwhelmed and provide opportunities to start the winter semester refreshed and prepared together.”

“These unprecedented times have pushed the task force to rethink what McMaster’s commitment to academic excellence means by developing recommendations intended to alleviate students, faculty and staff feeling overwhelmed and provide opportunities to start the winter semester refreshed and prepared together,” the report stated. 

The current status of students’ mental health was explained by Connor Blakeborough, health promoter at the Student Wellness Centre. Connor’s role as health promoter at the SWC involves assisting with programming such as mental health services, along with coordinating initiatives like Wellness Book Worms.

Additionally, he is a member of the education and health promotion subcommittee on The Okanagan mental health and wellbeing task force. The task force is a subsection of the McMaster Okanagan Committee, which is further split into several other subcommittees. 

“There is also just a general fear of missing out on the university experience as it’s usually experienced, especially for people coming into their first year and not getting in their first year experience on residence, or being on campus or being involved in the community in a way that’s more regular.” 

“Just in the communication that we have with students, a lot of students have been feeling lonely, isolated, overwhelmingly bored. There is also just a general fear of missing out on the university experience as it’s usually experienced, especially for people coming into their first year and not getting in their first year experience on residence, or being on campus or being involved in the community in a way that’s more regular,” said Blakeborough. 

The Okanagan mental health and wellbeing task force will address the recommendations of the virtual learning report and explore ways to support the McMaster community through remote learning. This task force is a subsection of the McMaster Okanagan Committee, which was developed after McMaster signed the Okanagan Charter in 2017. 

The charter was an outcome from the 2015 International Conference on Health Promoting Universities and Colleges and developed by interdisciplinary stakeholders from 45 countries. The charter had two calls of action to educational institutions: to embed health into all aspects of campus culture, across the administration, operations and academic mandates; and to lead health promotion action and collaboration locally and globally. 

The mental health and wellbeing task force comprises 10 representatives of students, faculty and staff and is led by Dr. Catharine Munn, associate clinical professor in psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences. 

“The new [Okanagan Mental Health and Wellbeing] task force will help us to understand the needs that have arisen in these new and uniquely challenging circumstances and to identify key solutions, so that we can emerge as a healthier and stronger community.”

Paul O’Byrne, dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences and chair of the McMaster Okanagan Committee, was quoted in a McMaster Daily News article: “McMaster signed the Okanagan Charter in 2017 to help demonstrate our commitment to integrating health and wellbeing into all aspects of life at the university. The new [Okanagan Mental Health and Wellbeing] task force will help us to understand the needs that have arisen in these new and uniquely challenging circumstances and to identify key solutions, so that we can emerge as a healthier and stronger community.”

Blakeborough echoed the sentiments of O’Bryne. 

I think it will be a great opportunity to explore mental health and wellbeing as it relates to both individual and systemic issues, especially those that have become a lot more apparent and prevalent during the pandemic. The task force and the committee will be able to look at the relationships between faculty, students and staff which deal with students on a daily basis and how we can use that relationship and better that relationship to benefit students and their mental health,” said Blakeborough. 

I think it will be a great opportunity to explore mental health and wellbeing as it relates to both individual and systemic issues, especially those that have become a lot more apparent and prevalent during the pandemic.”

Other suggestions outlined from the virtual learning task force revolved around teaching recommendations, such as reducing workload for students, creating easier navigation of course platforms, providing additional flexibility for assignments and increasing opportunities for classroom connection.

When asked what efforts he would like McMaster to make, Blakeborough recommended incorporating discussions of mental health within current courses and programming, specifically on the social determinants of health, including financial insecurity, housing and food insecurity. 

I think there’s definitely a lot of things that could be addressed. But ultimately, it’d be great to see programming or electives which kind of teach self reflection and goal setting,” said Blakeborough.

I think there’s definitely a lot of things that could be addressed. But ultimately, it’d be great to see programming or electives which kind of teach self reflection and goal setting,” said Blakeborough.

“[The task force has] listened to the feedback and factored in the results from various surveys when crafting these recommendations,” said Dean of Engineering Ishwar Puri.

“We hope that these ideas resonate with students and instructors so that we can work together to address the ongoing challenges and meet the opportunities that lay ahead for us as a campus community in 2021,” elaborated Puri.

“We hope that these ideas resonate with students and instructors so that we can work together to address the ongoing challenges and meet the opportunities that lay ahead for us as a campus community in 2021,” added Puri.

Resources for mental health and wellness: 

Student Wellness Center
Good2Talk 
Student Assistance Plan 

Image courtesy of C/O Anthony Tran

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