The PIE: You were saying that institutions don’t often know numbers in terms of students who need help with their mental health?
Anouchka Plumb: Part of the reason we don’t really know the numbers is that it doesn’t help with marketing and it stigmatises institutions. There has been nationwide recognition that such types of conversations are essential. We know international students are such an important part of our campus community and our future labour force, and recognising this very central component of their experience is necessary.
“The University of Windsor has done a lot of work to develop a mental health strategy”
The PIE: Can you tell me about the program at the University of Windsor?
AP: In 2015 we decided to develop a wellness program. It has taken a few different shapes, but in 2017 we restructured it. It’s called MindFlow, with three grounding principles – inspiration, movement and transformation.
With inspiration, we’re not looking at inspiring students; we’re looking at equipping them with baseline skills to be able to identify opportunities where they can be inspired. If we take, for example, how individuals are distracted and have multiple thoughts, it is difficult to identify those opportunities that can benefit them because of all their competing ideas.
Through inspiration, what we are looking at is a process of calming the mind, bringing attention to the frustrations and the stressors. So just teaching students how to identify those thoughts. That’s the first part.
The second one is movement, and it relies on very basic breathing techniques. If our students can just walk away knowing how to breathe through certain situations, that’s a significant step. As we know, students are studying for X number of hours, so we look at equipping them with those coping strategies.
And then the last is transformation. So the aim is helping students use those skills to transform their thoughts, maybe moving from ‘I can’t’, to ‘I can’t right now, but I will’, and identifying what steps can be taken to move in a positive direction.
The final aim is for that to move into a transformation of action, which can mean instead of harbouring all those thoughts and feelings, they could result in seeking advice by talking to a friend, or making subtle changes with what they’ve learned.
The PIE: How do you deliver the programs?
AP: So in our EAP [English for Academic Purposes] program, we have five levels and each level is twelve weeks long with multiple sections within a level. We have a mindfulness facilitator, Nicole Daignault, who comes into classes.
I work with the facilitator to design a flexible curriculum, and we identify topics that are pretty consistent across terms that would be important to bring awareness to but also term specific issues such as the winter blues or jetlag and things like that.
Within the program, the facilitator also asks students to identify specific areas where they are facing challenges. So it’s 30 minutes per week for 10 weeks. And the instructors participate in it as well.
The PIE: Did this whole construct have to be sanctioned by someone senior at the institution?
AP: No, and the reason why there is a buy-in from the institution is that the program satisfies our institution’s student mental health strategy; the University of Windsor has done a lot of work to develop a mental health strategy.
One of the principles is to implement a range of preventative wellness initiatives. So that ties into that particular mandate.
“Those who reported feeling exhausted from non-physical activities, again it is over 90%, which is just mindboggling”
With regards to instructors, we’ve invested in professional development. Some of our instructors have participated in some Canadian mental health workshops. That was very much in line with what we do here. So from the instructor side, it’s not necessarily pitching it as ‘this is for the students only’, this is care for our team, it’s care for our organisation.
So when we’re able to position it in the broader context, there isn’t that barrier of having to convince people, because it just makes sense.
The PIE: How is it being received by your student population?
AP: On a national context based on a Canadian reference group 2016 and 2019 executive summaries, the percentage of tertiary level students [not just international] who feel overwhelmed, both male and female, has increased to over 90%. And for those who reported feeling exhausted from non-physical activities, again it is over 90%, which is just mindboggling.
So in the top five, according to the same reference, we have stress number one, then we see anxiety, sleep, difficulties, depression, cold and flu. What’s interesting here is that we know that when we’re not sleeping well, that compromises the immune system, which then makes us more susceptible to other physiological symptoms. So they’re all interconnected.
We found that 90% of our students agree or strongly agree with the statement that they find the MindFlow piece enjoyable. That is fairly consistent among all the levels. We’re also seeing improved sleep in 50% of the lower level, 20% in level two and 17% in the highest level.
The PIE: You could argue that the lower your level, the most stress you feel anyway?
AP: Right. But also presuming that the students who are in level one are more likely for this to be their first term, so sleep is a huge issue, and as they’re progressing, they’re able to acclimatise. But even in term of stress, as the levels intensify, that stress is increasing.
We can see for sleep difficulties, 21% of all of our students in that program felt that MindFlow helped to decrease their sleep difficulties. 57% felt that it helped reduce their stress levels. And what was really important to see was that we are tackling the areas that according to the national context, students have challenges. That was an affirmation that we were on the right track.
The PIE: Are you trying to use it as an edge in terms of your marketing programs?
AP: We have mentioned it, but I think it depends. We will share the information, whether that helps someone to choose whether to pursue this program compared to another all depends. But MindFlow is not about student numbers. This is really about student wellbeing.
When students start their academic journey – in which they will face a number of additional stressors – it’s important they have ways to be able to cope.
Do you think in Canada, because there’s been so much student growth and a lot of expectation around routes to immigration that there’s increasing pressure on institutions as well?
Absolutely. It’s everything from immigration to employability to being prepared to participate in a meaningful way in academics.
“MindFlow is intended as preventative care, a step before needing to access counselling service”
The PIE: Do you think that different universities have different approaches to student satisfaction?
AP: Well, based on a presentation that I gave where there were about 42 participants, only two individuals who identified being a part of or being aware of institutional mandates or movements towards recognising a wellness program initiative. I don’t know if that is a fair representation of what’s going on. And I wouldn’t want to speculate here, but I think it is important.
Again, we’re talking about internationalisation and sometimes internationalisation tends to be first and foremost defined by recruitment. But there are many pillars of internationalisation that go beyond that and tap into some of those nitty-gritty areas.
The PIE: I get the impression that a lot of institutions think the wellness agenda is best dealt with by counsellors, which is why I think what you’re doing is interesting because you’re trying to embed into the curriculum a way of coping.
AP: There’s a definite place for counselling services and this is not meant to replace those. We know many students seek counselling. But again, MindFlow is intended as preventative care, a step before needing to access counselling services.