What the Okanagan Charter means for Waterloo faculty

Dan Brown, FAUW Treasurer

In October, 2018, President Hamdullahpur signed the Okanagan Charter at a mental health forum about the status of the 36 recommendations of the President’s Advisory Committee on Student Mental Health (PAC-SMH) report. At our general meeting in April, we heard from Campus Wellness about some of the ways the Charter is being implemented (download the general meeting slides).

Let’s dig a little deeper into what the Charter is and how it might affect faculty at Waterloo.

Background: The Okanagan Charter

The Okanagan Charter comes out of a 2015 international meeting on health promotion in post-secondary education held at UBC’s Okanagan campus. The Charter proposes that health and wellbeing should be central aspects of the campus experience for all members of the campus community, and that higher education institutions should take leading roles in health promotion both locally and globally. It’s a broad document, with a holistic definition of health, itself taken from a different Charter (the 1986 Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion): “physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” The Okanagan Charter goes as far as to also highlight environmental sustainability as a part of supporting health.

More specifically, the document focuses on the “unique” role colleges and universities have in this space: we educate, we build knowledge that can improve people’s health, and we can have an important role in advocacy.

The charter also identifies a collection of ways to implement its two “calls to action” (embedding health into all aspects of campus and taking lead roles in health promotion). These range from the generic (“embed health in all campus policies” by reviewing campus policies and practices with attention to health, well-being and sustainability) to more specific calls to support research in health promotion.

The Okanagan Charter comes to Waterloo

Note: Students aren’t explicitly prioritized over other groups.

Since the PAC-SMH report, the Committee on Student Mental Health (CoSMH), chaired by Prof. John Hirdes from Applied Health Sciences, has been charged with implementing the PAC-SMH report recommendations. Recommendation #34 is to “undertake a full adoption and promotion of the [Okanagan] Charter,” arguing that adopting the Charter is part of moving towards an environment where all stakeholders share the responsibility of having a healthy campus.

Along with the general principles of the Charter, Waterloo made specific commitments, including:

  • using a health and wellness lens for policies and procedures which highlights mental health and resilience while also listing other markers of health like physical health and spiritual well-being
  • committing to a university-wide health promotion and wellness collaborative led by Campus Wellness to promote and improve existing wellness programs and identify new ones
  • funding health and wellness projects across campus and running a research and education forum about progress in these areas every two years
  • designing metrics for health and wellness and reporting on how the programs on campus are contributing to the overall campus climate for health and wellness.

Not surprisingly, since it comes from the Committee on Student Mental Health, there is a focus on mental health in the endorsing document. What is perhaps surprising is that students aren’t explicitly prioritized over other stakeholder groups. There is a sentence that includes the phrase “promote the health and wellness of our students and the broader campus community,” but nothing else separates out students, and a sub-bullet specifically includes “the health and campus of the entire campus community including students, faculty, staff and other campus stakeholders.”

Are there any teeth in this?

Probably not where it counts, no. The Charter isn’t an enforceable University policy, like those on ethical behaviour or sustainability. So, if policies and procedures developed by the University don’t support faculty or staff health, for example, it’s hard to see why the endorsement of the Charter would give FAUW or the UW Staff Association much leverage beyond what we already have.

That said, adopting the Charter signals a commitment to health and wellness on the part of the administration, which we can point to when needed, so“did the planning and decision-making take account of and support the flourishing of people, campuses, communities and our planet?” becomes a relevant question in a way that it might not have previously been. If FAUW was arguing for a better compassionate leave policy, for example, we could employ the argument that such a policy would support flourishing of the communities in which our employees work, and contribute to employee mental health and resilience.

One place where we will likely see change is the metrics mentioned above: It’s possible that, in response to the signing commitments, the University may develop very detailed metrics that focus on the ways in which faculty teach or on the quality of particular student services. They may also quantify how faculty or student services are affecting health outcomes for students or other campus communities.

Finally, the new funding for research and programming in health promotion may be of interest for some of our members in (for example) Applied Health Sciences or psychology.

What else is the Committee on Student Mental Health doing?

There’s a dashboard giving progress information on all 36 PAC-SMH recommendations. Three are complete (though one is the actual creation of CoSMH). The committee meets monthly; among recent discussion topics are getting relevant mental health training to faculty and other employee groups, exploring digital mental health support tools, and examining how to make campus peer support groups more effective.

FAUW has no official representation on CoSMH, but I’m the Faculty of Math’s representative and often highlight concerns related to FAUW’s mandate. If faculty members have feedback about what we’re working on, I’d be delighted to hear from them at dan.brown@uwaterloo.ca. You can also contact one of the other Faculty representatives on the committee.

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