New year, new task force

Mental-health supports students can expect to see in 2021

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

Now that the University of Winnipeg’s (U of W) wellness and mental-health infrastructure has weathered a full semester of pandemic restrictions, those who sit at critical places in that infrastructure are able to reflect on lessons learned and move into the winter term with additional experience. 

Shawna Peloquin, president of the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association (UWSA), says student mental health has been a top priority of the UWSA and currently plays a role in all of their initiatives. 

“I think that, this year, it’s become the backbone of everything we do. All events have some aspect of supporting mental health for staff and students in the community,” she says.

Peloquin says she’s grateful for the quick transition the university made to online learning, because it allowed wellness infrastructure to shift the work put into physical health and safety into mental health. 

“There’s two components to our support: one is to offer consistent services that students can rely on for mental health and (guidance as to) services within your community. The UWSA also has the capacity to do more outreach with students and create more tools for them to bring back home,” she says.

She also cites the Green Shield Canada health plan as the greatest resource the UWSA can provide to students looking for mental-health support, as it covers $800 worth of psychology or counselling services. 

Brian Theriault, the clinical co-ordinator and counsellor with the university’s Student Counselling Services (SCS), says wellness services have been able to pivot online successfully because of collaboration with the rest of student services, including the Aboriginal Student Services Centre, Academic and Career Services, Accessibility Services and International, Immigrant and Refugee Student Services. 

“Here at Student Counselling Services (SCS), we’re able to deliver our services online in a meaningful way for students, but connecting with other departments helps us to identify greater underlying issues,” he says. 

Theriault says that in lieu of on-campus options to accommodate those greater issues, a host of new services has been introduced. 

For example, SCS now has an intake specialist to triage student requests for counselling. Webinar Wednesdays and drop-in Zoom sessions can connect students with service teams. Aboriginal Student Services still has the elder-in-residence program. Prior to Code Red restrictions, students without a study-supportive environment or steady internet at home could request on-campus study spaces.

“I feel like with what has happened with students and with staff, I’m pleased with my team and the other departments at how quickly we were able to meet student needs,” he says. “I’m not saying we’ve met the needs of everyone, but with the people I’m working with, I’m glad at how quickly students were being supported and the way we were able to be creative and deliver services.”

A potentially major new development in mental-health efforts on campus is the creation of an operational task force on the subject by the U of W board of regents. A motion was made on Sept. 22 to have the board take on a mental-health initiative, but according to open-session material, this was referred back to the committee due to “technical shortcomings.”

The Governance and Community Relations Committee of the Board (GCRC) received a presentation on the state of mental health and wellness services on Oct. 5 from Jan Stewart, interim provost and vice-president, academic. At their next open-session meeting on Nov. 23, they passed a motion to establish an operational task force on student mental health. 

While the presentation did not explicitly look at the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the state of student mental health, Rohith Mascarenhas, chair of the board, said in an email statement that the pandemic played a part in the motion being passed. 

“I wasn’t at the GCRC meeting myself, but I understand that some members of that committee raised the issue in light of specific COVID impacts, and the GCRC ultimately raised it to the board for discussion in October, and it was sent back to the GCRC for further discussion about some of those issues about composition, mandate, etc.,” Mascarenhas says. 

“While I think COVID was the catalyst for the recommendation, it wasn’t the board’s intention that the committee would be limited to examining or addressing only COVID impacts on mental health, which is again why we left the language broad.”

Mascarenhas says an important element of this taskforce is that there are no restrictions on who can join. 

“By making it an operational committee, the board’s intention was to make sure it wasn’t restricted to board members, but involved the university community as a whole to get diverse perspectives of those who are directly affected and access the U of W’s mental-health support system, as well as those who may have mental-health expertise,” he says. 

“The board specifically didn’t place any restrictions for joining the committee, as this level of detail is beyond the board’s strategic oversight function and is an operational issue that we decided was best left to administration to determine,” Mascarenhas says. Theriault says he is not aware of any current restriction to serving on the task force. 

Theriault, who is a member, says that after the first task-force meeting, he felt a lot of good energy and was heartened to see so many students present in addition to faculty and administrators. 

“The fact that about half the committee was students was really good,” he says. “My read on that is that there is recognition that we need identification and a plan here to address student mental health that is thorough and going to meet the needs.” 

Peloquin says members of the UWSA are taking part in the task force and says that “it aims to strategize what we can do for students on a larger level.”

“The aim is to create a really diverse group of people to be able to bring forward initiatives that will help,” she says. 

Theriault says that because the taskforce is just in its infancy, they have not yet determined specific areas of the broad subject of “mental health” to focus on. 

Published in Volume 75, Number 14 of The Uniter (January 13, 2021)

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