UBC makes mental health a priority

December is typically filled with cheer, joy and happiness. The semester wraps up and there’s plenty of holiday celebration and family time. But the holiday season also comes with a wide range of demands that can leave us feeling more drained, financially strained and disappointed. Come January, when some of us feel a little down, it can be challenging to grasp what’s happening to our minds  and bodies.

For UBC students trying to understand why they might be sleeping more or feeling a little moody and unmotivated, there are plenty of new resources on campus. These resources are part of a new and more comprehensive approach to student mental health at UBC.

This approach has been adopted in response to cumulative National College Health Association (NCHA) survey data that indicate that mental health concerns have the greatest negative impact on students’ academic performance. In the 2009 NCHA survey, 40 per cent of students reported that stress negatively affected their academic performance, 30 per cent were affected by anxiety, and 16 per cent by depression. Analysis of responses to questions on resilience, developed for the UBC survey by Cheryl Washburn, director of UBC Counselling Services, pointed to the importance of developing a pro-active approach to enhancing student mental health. The survey, spearheaded in 2004 by Dr. Patricia Mirwaldt, director of UBC Student Health Service, is conducted at every two years.

“We understood we needed to promote student mental wellbeing if we wanted our students to succeed academically,” says Washburn. “We want students to get a lot out of their experience here and we need to create the conditions that will help them thrive.”

In 2009, Enrolment Services and Student Development and Services engaged in an integrated planning process focussed on improving the student experience at UBC. Improving student mental health emerged as one of three top priorities of an integrated action plan. This planning process was facilitated by higher education consultant Richard Keeling.

Student mental health is also being promoted through initiatives coming out of UBC’s focus on excellence in advising, such as the Student Learning Plan and Early Alert System.

“Improving student experience at UBC meant we had to enhance student health and wellbeing,” says David Farrar, the Provost and Vice President Academic at UBC. “It’s part of fulfilling one of the major commitments in our strategic plan, Place and Promise.”

The new approach to mental health and wellbeing is based on prevention and intervention. It aims to increase awareness and skills for maintaining mental wellbeing, create a more supportive learning environment, provide early identification and support for students experiencing difficulties and improve access to mental health services, says Washburn.

“We want to develop an approach that involves students, faculty and staff because everyone has a role in maintaining the mental health of our students,” says Washburn.

Specific strategies have been put in place to achieve this goal and others are in development. The university will continue to monitor NCHA data and will also look at UBC’s data from the National Survey of Student Engagement. Together these student surveys will provide a snapshot of student wellbeing and experience at UBC.

Strategy to improve student wellbeing

Awareness and Skill Building

Students may not necessarily recognize that they are struggling until their problems become overwhelming. “There is often a lack of awareness of early signs that they are having difficulty coping,” says Washburn. She explains that the university wants to help students recognize early warning signs of stress and learn strategies for coping effectively. Initiatives include:

Live Well Learn Well Visit this website with self-assessments, skill building toolkits and links to UBC services and resources. www.students.ubc.ca/livewelllearnwell

Thrive Attend the annual week-long series of events encouraging UBC students, staff and faculty to invest in healthier living

Suicide Awareness Campaign Reduces stigma and increases awareness of warning signs of suicide and resources available to students.

Healthy Minds at UBC blog Builds students’ capacity to maintain mental health by increasing awareness and reducing stigma.

Wellness Matters workshops Provides skills for managing your stress, time and health

Wellness Centre in the SUB Student volunteers answer questions about your mental and physical health

Creating a More Supportive Learning Environment

Washburn says UBC is implementing systems wide strategies to create a more supportive learning environment which also promotes student mental health. She says that first year students can feel isolated and unsure of their academic choices. They may also feel unsupported more generally in terms of how to manage multiple demands.

The faculties of Arts and Science are piloting learning plans that provide students with a framework to foster learning, goals clarification and planning, as well as meaningful engagement in the campus community. Plans are underway to make this available to all first year students.

An admissions business process review is underway to recommend changes to better support students from admission through their first year.


Washburn says UBC is implementing several programs that enable identification of students with difficulties and connection to supports to prevent students from reaching the point where they are unable to cope.

Early alert system to identify students who may be experiencing difficulties and provide timely connection to appropriate resources and services.

QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer): Training for faculty, staff, and students in how to recognize warning signs of suicide, reach out and ask about suicidal thoughts and feelings and refer to appropriate services.

Improved access to mental health services

Counselling Services has implemented several new approaches to provide students with more timely access to the services and resources.

Initial screening appointment within 24 hours and matching to appropriate services and resources on and off campus.

Onsite counselling at the First National House of Learning three times a week to increase access for Aboriginal students.

Increased access to group programs focusing on mood and self-management skills.

Streamlined referral to Student Health Service psychiatry.

More information on Counselling Services and the Student Health Service can be found at Live Well Learn Well: www.students.ubc.ca/livewelllearnwell


UBC’s “Live Well Learn Well” website explains depression and says what to watch for

Signs and symptoms

  • Fatigue or loss of energy and motivation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Poor appetite or overeating
  • Irritability, feelings of guilt or self-criticism
  • Thoughts of suicide

What to do

  • Set some goals—make them small, specific and realistic
  • Exercise regularly, eat well, get enough sleep and have fun
  • Hang out and talk with friends, they provide emotional support
  • Focus on positive parts of your life
  • Avoid alcohol or drugs

When to get help

Mood is persistently low
Symptoms interfere with your ability to do day-to-day activities
Suicidal thoughts

Who to call

UBC Counselling Services: 604.822.3811  (office hours)

Student Health Service: 604-822-7011

1-800-SUICIDE (1.800.784.2433) at any time

More information available at: www.students.ubc.ca/livewelllearnwell/learn-about-wellness/depression/

Related topics:

UBC Reports | Vol. 56 | No. 12 | Dec. 3, 2010

Cheryl Washburn, director of Counseling Services at UBC, tells UBC Reports about the university’s plan to make mental health a priority. Photo: Don Erhardt

Cheryl Washburn, director of Counseling Services at UBC, tells UBC Reports about the university’s plan to make mental health a priority. Photo: Don Erhardt

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According to a 2009 NCHA survey, UBC students said they experienced these issues at least once in the last year.


felt so depressed it was difficult to function


felt overwhelming anxiety


felt things were hopeless


felt very sad


felt exhausted but not from physical activity

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