UBC Vancouver: Health and wellbeing a top priority as students return to campus

As UBC prepares to welcome students back to campus this September, the university is taking extra care to keep them safe and in good health.

From embedded mental health counsellors to extended physician hours and a new nurse practitioner, UBC has expanded its health and wellbeing services to help ease the transition for students.

Building on the developments of the last year, student health services will continue to be offered both in person and virtually, giving students more choice and better meeting their needs.

“After more than a year of remote learning, we recognize that many students could experience a range of challenges to their health and wellbeing, from fears of COVID-19 to anxiety about re-establishing social connections and transitioning back to in-person learning,” says UBC’s Vice-President, Students, Dr. Ainsley Carry. “By expanding health and wellbeing services, we hope to support our students in maintaining positive physical and mental health.”

“This has been an exceptionally challenging year and our students have shown remarkable resilience and patience – patience for which we are deeply grateful,” says Dale Mullings, Associate Vice-President, Students.

“But just as our students have stood with us as we adjust to new ways of teaching and learning, we stand with them by offering new, expanded and reimagined supports in order to better meet their needs for mental and physical health,” says Mullings. “These services, which put their wellbeing first, are set to become ever more important as we enter a new phase of transition in our return to campus in the fall.”

Say hello to UBC’s new chief student health officer

A friendly face ready to welcome students to campus is Noorjean Hassam, who has been appointed to the newly created role of chief student health officer. She will oversee health services and wellbeing programming for students on the Vancouver campus, as well as implementing health-related strategies in UBC’s strategic plans, including the Indigenous Strategic Plan, the Wellbeing Strategic Framework and the Inclusion Action Plan.

Before coming to UBC, Hassam served as chief operating officer for the BC Centre for Disease Control, supporting the pandemic response and vaccine rollout, overdose emergency, as well as championing anti-racism and Indigenous reconciliation.

“I’m looking forward to welcoming students to campus and helping connect them with the wide range of supports available for their physical and mental health and wellbeing,” she says. “This last year has brought social and racial injustice and inequity to the forefront of public health. It’s vital that we actively work toward anti-racism and cultural safety and humility in our health and wellbeing programming.”

While some students may be concerned about COVID-19, Hassam emphasizes the risk is significantly lower now with B.C.’s high vaccination rate.

“I cannot stress this enough: vaccines have changed this picture from how it looked when the pandemic was declared,” says Hassam.“Today, we are much more knowledgeable about what we need to do to keep safe, but we also need to turn our attention to helping students recover from the unintended negative effects that staying home has had on our mental health in the form of social anxiety and social isolation. We also need to learn how to manage COVID as a communicable disease, rather than as a pandemic, and this shift will be an important one for us all to understand.”

Maximizing access to mental health services

UBC is offering mental health resources both virtually and in-person to maximize access and reduce barriers for students seeking help.

At UBC Counselling Services on the Vancouver campus and Student Wellness in the Okanagan, UBC students in B.C. can access free virtual and in-person services, including wellness advising, group counselling and individual counselling. All students, no matter where they are located around the world, can also access free 24/7 mental health services through the Student Assistance Program at UBC Vancouver and UBC Okanagan. Services include personal counselling and wellness coaching in more than 180 languages by phone, chat, SMS or in-person.

UBC’s student health and dental plan, administered through the UBC Alma Mater Society and the UBC Student Union Okanagan, also provide registered students with up to $1,000 of insurance coverage per year for counselling. Other services available to all UBC students include Here2Talk, which provides 24/7 access to free personal counselling by phone or online chat, and the First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Helpline (1-855-242-3310), which provides counselling and crisis intervention for Indigenous peoples across Canada by phone or chat in Cree, Ojibway, Inuktitut, French and English.

At UBC Vancouver, the embedded counselling program is also expanding with the addition of seven full-time counsellors who will be on-site and available to students in several faculties. This expansion builds upon embedded counselling programs already established at the Peter A. Allard School of Law, Vantage College, the First Nations Longhouse and student housing.

The story is similar in the Okanagan where students will discover increased counselling resources, expanded evening hours and additional locations in the newly constructed Nechako student residence and commons block. This includes an expansion of trauma informed counselling and specific counselling supports for students who have experienced sexualized violence.

These services and more will be contained within a new UBCO Department of Student Wellness starting August 1. It will bring together health services, counselling, disability resources and wellness education under one umbrella and provide a one-stop shop for students and support a campus culture of wellbeing, empathy, equity and social justice.

Supporting student health in-person and virtually

Recognizing that some students may prefer to access health services remotely, UBC is offering students the choice of in-person or virtual health appointments.

The Wellness Centre has virtual and in-person services and programs for diverse accessibility needs. Students can access a range of services from mental health and sexual health, to allergy care, and harm reduction, as well as receive referrals for psychiatry, dermatology and gynecology for those in Vancouver. Telehealth appointments will continue to be available for students who prefer this option.

Student Health Services is also adding an additional 500 hours of physician service per year along with a new full-time nurse practitioner. “With these additional supports, we are better equipped to meet student demand and to provide a more collaborative team-based approach to care,” says Hassam.

UBC Okanagan’s Department of Student Wellness has bolstered its student health services and is recruiting a new full-time nurse practitioner to work alongside campus physicians. Physician hours too have been expanded by 20 per cent to better meet the needs of students returning to campus in September.

Health promotion and education starting at orientation

Students will learn first about the range of health resources available at UBC during orientation.

Academic Essentials, which runs July 5 to Aug. 12, includes a series of free online courses, including one called Live Well to Learn Well that provides students with tips for transitioning from high school to university, and how to access academic and wellness resources online.

Jump Start, a five-day academic orientation offered on both campuses, introduces first year students to health and wellbeing services. This year, following the guidance from public health authorities, Jump Start will be offered as a hybrid program with online and in-person elements.

New school year = fresh start

For students wondering how to get a healthy start at UBC, Hassam offers important advice: try to establish social connections early on.

“We know that social isolation takes a toll on people’s health,” she says. “It’s important that students get connected early and join in-person and virtual communities where and when possible, especially during orientation.”

Hassam also encourages students to take advantage of the renewed energy that comes with a new school year.

“This is a great time to create and cultivate healthy habits, especially around sleep, nutrition and exercise,” she says. “During the pandemic, many people tried new things for the first time, like spending time in nature. We hope that students who made these positive shifts will be able to hold onto those as well.”

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