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Trevor Hancock: How healthy are universities and colleges?

Last week, I attended an international conference on healthy universities and colleges in Kelowna. The concept of a healthy university has been around for 20 years or so.

Last week, I attended an international conference on healthy universities and colleges in Kelowna. The concept of a healthy university has been around for 20 years or so. It is part of a wider “settings” approach that includes healthy schools, workplaces, cities and communities — even healthy hospitals and prisons.

The underlying premise of this approach is simple. Our health is to a large extent determined by the settings in which we lead our daily lives, where we live, learn, work and play.

What makes this approach different is that we are not trying to improve the health of people by directly changing their behaviour. Rather, we aim to change the setting itself, making it a healthier place to lead our lives.

A university or college is not just students; there are two other large groups — the academic faculty and the non-academic staff. Their health also has to be considered in any comprehensive approach to creating a healthy university. But in this column I will focus on students.

So what makes a university or college healthy? Perhaps more to the point, what is unhealthy about them today? While health has physical, mental and social components, surveys of students reveal that the main concern has to be with mental health.

For example, a 2013 student health survey at the University of Victoria (available on the University Health Services website) reveals that 32 per cent of respondents had experienced colds, flu or other communicable disease in the previous 12 months, 26 per cent reported back pain and stress injuries, and 15 per cent were coping with chronic physical conditions.

But the mental-health issues were much larger. Ninety per cent reported feeling overwhelmed, while 88 per cent felt exhausted; 68 per cent were very sad and 65 per cent very lonely, 54 per cent reported overwhelming anxiety, 52 per cent felt hopeless, many were not sleeping well and 36 per cent reported they were so depressed it was difficult to function.

Substance use among students is widespread, and mainly involves alcohol: 76 per cent report drinking alcohol, compared to 22 per cent using marijuana (few report using cocaine or ecstasy). More troublingly, 39 per cent reported “binge drinking” (five or more drinks in a single sitting) in the previous two weeks.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one in four students reported they had been diagnosed or treated in the last 12 months for a mental-health condition, while one in five had received mental health services from UVic Health or Counselling Services.

This is not to single out UVic, the same survey in other universities across Canada and the U.S. reveals much the same. The picture that emerges is that student life is very stressful and that our campuses are mentally unhealthy. The largest reported source of stress was “academics” (courses and exams), with women and younger students reporting higher levels of distress.

The mentally unhealthy state of our universities and colleges should be a major concern to the faculty and administration, as well as the students themselves. This level of stress is undermining the ability of universities to carry out one of their core missions: To help students learn.

There is a central principle in systems design that applies to any organization: Every system is perfectly designed to achieve the results it gets. So it seems that we have designed our universities and colleges to generate high levels of stress, anxiety and depression, and thus to undermine their core educational mission.

There was some concern at the conference that in their intense pursuit of research funding and publications, universities in particular have created hyper-competitive, high-pressure, career-focused environments that are inimical to thoughtful reflection and learning.

It seems that at least to some extent universities have lost their way. As Jonathan Porritt, chancellor of Keele University, put it: “We should be preparing students for the work of the world, not the world of work.”

Surely the bottom line for universities and colleges, as for societies as a whole, should be to maximize human potential and human well-being. I will discuss ideas about how to do this in next week’s column.


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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