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Diversity in mental health on post-secondary campuses

By Alina Mansuri, August 5 2021—

A webinar was held on July 15th that discussed the challenges faced on campus, supporting mental health and wellbeing among students at the University of Calgary. This provided the opportunity for three panelists, Kome Odoko, Dr. Gregor Wolbring and Dr. Bukola Salami, to bring forth their recommendations to ensure a more equitable, diverse and inclusive community, moderated by Dr. Malinda Smith and Melissa Boyce over Zoom.

“We all have mental health. We all have wellbeing needs — with some having more support than others by being able to articulate the kind of support that they need or where to go. It is important for us as a community to recognize who needs extra help, who needs more support and making those supports easily accessible. Not everyone’s needs have to be met in the same way, but it is important to diversify the supply of mental health support to students.”

These words by Odoko at the Diversity in Mental Health conference summarized the challenges we have with managing mental health issues on campus. Mental health can be affected by a complex web of determinants and understanding these underlying factors can help guide our responses to mental health.

Salami, associate professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Alberta, conducted a study that involved 129 Black youths in Alberta to analyse and determine the factors that affected mental health and accessibility to the services that affect overall wellbeing. The findings were disheartening as the factors described were racism and discrimination that the participants have experienced.

“We have students that are watching trauma on social media of racialized people being harmed,” Odoko said, further emphasizing Salami’s research. “[Students are] having to go to classes and take exams — seeing spiritual backgrounds receiving discrimination [while they] engage in academic workload.” 

On speaking about how we can support student’s mental wellbeing and to ensure the student population’s needs are met, Odoko felt that campus values are critical in defining what is considered important for our mental health. 

“The faculty must be well supported because their needs are important and must be considered as well.” Odoko said. “Our Campus Mental Health Strategy of Teaching and Learning subcommittee is working really hard to bring those changes to our classroom, to make space for our students.”

This involves reaching out to communities that are marginalized and diversifying the supply of mental health services, as youth who may not be comfortable find it hard to express themselves, which may increase feelings of anxiety. Being able to diversify the platform would ensure that the community on campus feels safe and supported.

This was also confirmed by Wolbring, a professor at the the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine in community and rehabilitation studies, whose research focuses on ability studies, disability studies and science and technology governance. 

“There are many studies on disabled people that show that they’re not at ease and are not comfortable in disclosing or identifying themselves within an institution to obtain the accommodation that they need,” said Wolbring. 

Due to the stigma attached to disability, Wolbring stated that asking for accomodations can be seen as alienating, and viewed by some as something “special”. Upon conducting a survey and giving a list such as cellphones, electricity and food security — “you will find that most of these abilities are taken for granted by people who are not marginalized,” said Wolbring.

On discussing the transition to in-person delivery, many solutions were brought to the discussion to highlight what can be done to provide protection and a secure environment for individuals returning to campus. Salami mentioned the need to shed light on the resources available and create a sense of community and social belonging among students.

“There is a need for systematic structural change in terms of mental health services, in creating a larger picture of creating a more equitable academy which values and respects the diversity of people who teach research and work and live on campus,” said Dr. Malinda Smith, UCalgary’s inaugural vice-provost of equity, diversity and inclusion.

Mental health has become a top priority at the university, especially with the ongoing pandemic. All panelists mentioned that, mental health can be improved with the creation of a more diverse, equitable and inclusive society, and that we can all do our part in ensuring the university is a safe space for all.

To access the recorded webinar, visit the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning YouTube channel. For upcoming webinars, visit the UCalgary webpage.

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