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Okanagan Charter redefines health care at six universities

By SAMIA MADWAR | NOV 23 2016

Simon Fraser University is overhauling its academic calendar. The crucial student resource, with its course schedules and important dates and deadlines, may not change substantially. But to Tara Black, a few subtle tweaks might have an immeasurable effect on the calendar’s primary users – starting with the tone.

“It would be supportive versus punitive,” says Ms. Black, SFU’s associate director of health promotion. One of the calendar’s roles is to outline the university’s policies and guidelines, and while Ms. Black acknowledges that students should be warned of the consequences of breaking the rules, “the language used in policy can actually be respectful, supportive, positive, and doesn’t need to be, ‘Though shalt not …’”

The revision project is one of several initiatives that have sprung from the Okanagan Charter, a document formally adopted by SFU along with five other Canadian universities in October. Developed during the 2015 International Conference on Health Promoting Universities and Colleges, which was hosted by the University of British Columbia, the charter encourages institutions to make health and well-being a priority in every policy, action, and even physical space.

The terms of the charter are intentionally vague, says Ms. Black; they’re meant to accommodate the range of institutions that have adopted it, as well as those that might one day sign on.

Health promotion, she says, could factor into the tone instructors set and the rules they establish on the first day of class. Even the physical configuration of classrooms is under scrutiny: “The way you furnish a space can contribute to social connection and a sense of belonging – or it can isolate,” says Ms. Black.

She acknowledges that there are some limits to the charter’s approach: it’s difficult, for instance, to alter a space meant to seat hundreds of students. But that, says Ms. Black, is where other health promotion factors come into play.

Some professors, for instance, are providing students a choice of assignments to complete, rather than imposing the same assignment on everyone. Others are instituting flexible deadlines to accommodate students’ needs.

But not all measures apply to the classroom. Memorial University has adapted 7 Cups of Tea, an online program that connects people experiencing emotional distress with trained listeners, for a campus-wide program launching in the new year. For students under stress, says Peter Cornish, director of Memorial’s Student Wellness and Counselling Centre, it will offer a more accessible alternative to clinical psychotherapy.

“This charter helps us to reverse the tendency to think that every kind of struggle is a mental health concern,” says Dr. Cornish. Through programs such as 7 Cups, “the whole campus can take responsibility for the normal pressures of stress and then leave room in the clinic for the ones [students] who are much more seriously ill.”

Still other programs provide health and wellness support to staff and faculty, and equip them to better engage with students.

Many of the programs associated with the charter had already been under development before the document was signed. But with university presidents formally signing it into effect this fall, says Dr. Cornish, “it allows us to broaden the partnerships evenly distributed through the faculty and staff to make it part of the core academic mandate.”

While the charter does not mandate a monetary commitment, the University of British Columbia and the University of Calgary have dedicated $1 million and $3 million, respectively, toward health and well-being promotion on campus. The University of Lethbridge and Mount Royal University have also committed to integrating the charter into their strategic plans.

The charter was created in conjunction with international partners, including the Pan American Health Organization and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). But universities, says Dr. Cornish, will play a significant role in pushing other organizations to adopt it.

“Universities have to take this responsibility, because we have the best experts, we have a young population of students,” he says. “We should be role models to society for how to do this.”

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