News

Q+A: Student mental health at Simon Fraser University

By JESSICA ANDERSEN
Staff Writer

The Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CAUCUSS) tells Niagara News that Simon Fraser University (SFU), located in Burnaby, BC, is a leader in dealing with student mental health issues in Canadian post-secondary institutions. Niagara News reached out to Martin Mroz, Director of Health and Counselling Services, to ask about the programs and initiatives being implemented at SFU.


NN: The CAUCUSS study we looked at said that post-secondary institutions need to have a “systemic approach” to mental health. How has SFU attempted to implement that?

MM: In 2010 we decided that some of our health promotion activities should be geared towards educating students and getting them to change their lifestyles. We wanted to promote eating better, sleeping better, partying safer and being careful about drug and alcohol use.

These things have a negative impact on health and mental health – it’s all the same thing and loop together. We had to find a way to promote change with students instead of leaving it all up to them. We shifted our focus and started The Healthy Campus Initiative. We have been working on it ever since.

NN: Why did you make student mental health a priority?

MM: The number one barrier to student success is stress. Stress and mental health go hand-in-hand and although some stress can be good, too much stress can have a negative impact. It’s an uphill battle because we want to catch problems before professional help is needed.We know we only see a small percentage of students struggling with mental health issues. With this approach, however, we can have a positive impact on everyone in the school.

NN: What are some of the key initiatives that SFU has implemented?

MM: Our biggest new one is our The Healthy Campus Initiative, which looks at everything from our teaching and learning centre, to our physical spaces, to content delivery in the classroom. We look at all these things and ask do they promote student well-being? If the answer is no, we look at what we can do differently.

NN: How does SFU attempt to create community in the classroom?

MM: We work with staff to create inclusivity and resiliency in our classroom. Students can nominate teachers who create healthy environments. We interview those instructors, collect their best practices and make them available to other teachers.

NN: Can you give us some examples?

MM: In the department of economics we have advisors come into the classroom to present options to students who may be struggling. In the engineering department we offer preparation courses in first and second year which helps to lower failures rates in difficult third and fourth year classes.

NN: Niagara News was told that SFU spreads out their grading, so it isn’t heavily weighted at key points in the semester?

MM: This is helpful because it doesn’t create a crunch for students where all of their assignments are due at once, or all their exams are scheduled for same days. Some instructors even include student input when scheduling assignments and tests.

NN: Are there other opportunities for feedback?

MM: We consult students all the time. One of the beauties of health promotion work is that it is based upon community involvement.

NN: What is SFU’s approach to inclusive language in the classroom?

MM: It would depend on the instructor, but inclusivity is important for well-being and learning. Instructors who are interested are provided with tools to foster an inclusive environement in their classrooms.

NN: How else are students involved?

MM: Through out health promotion team we develop great health peer educators and get students involved in outreach work.

SFU works to create student well-being in a number of different ways, including their approaches towards policy, their environment in the classroom, as well as physical spaces. Here are some of their initiatives:

  • Policy: SFU attempts to use plain language in messages to students, while also using inclusive language such as “we” and “you.” They commit themselves to questioning every policy by asking “what will be the impact on student well-being?”
  • Classroom environment: SFU promotes a healthy classroom environment through a number of initiatives. They attempt to increase social connections among students, as well as fostering a supportive classroom culture. Inclusivity is very important to SFU’s approach, as is reducing undue stress. They offer mentorship programs for students, as well curriculum mapping and opportunities to reduce scheduling conflicts.
  • Physical spaces: There are a number of unique elements to SFU’s approach to physical spaces. Students have access to shared kitchens for food preparation, windows that open for fresh air, natural lighting, moveable furniture for groups, reconfigurable furniture to conform to all body types and space for artistic expression.

For more information on SFU’s approach to mental health, please visit their website or watch this video.