Student wellness and mental health is of increasing interest to universities across Canada and around the world. Academic success depends upon mental health and yet evidence, including a recent World Health Organization survey study of post-secondary institutions across 21 countries, suggests that mental illness is common in university students and treatment rates are low.
To lead the development of a coordinated, engaged and effective mental health care system, universities must first understand what their students’ needs are during their time on campus.
With the support of a CIHR operating grant and matching funds from The Rossy Foundation, Queen’s researchers are leading the way through the U-Flourish Project, a longitudinal study examining the well-being and academic success of students over their first year at the university. Data was gathered though two online surveys – one as the students arrived at Queen’s and the second at the end of the 2018-19 academic year.
This research is led by clinician-researcher Anne Duffy (Department of Psychiatry, Division of Student Wellness), with the support of partners from across campus, including Public Health Sciences, the Department of Psychology and Student Wellness Services. The research is expanding to include sites at University of Oxford in the UK and the University of Sydney in Australia. This will allow for the comparison of similarities and differences across campuses and countries.
“There is huge interest in better understanding the scope and the forces driving student mental health needs that are challenging existing resources, and in developing resources that are readily evaluable and that address current students’ needs,” Dr. Duffy says. “More students are coming to university with different backgrounds, with varied past experiences, with different expectations, and at the same time emergent adulthood is the peak period of risk for onset of psychiatric illness that will persist if untreated and is associated with school failure and drop-out. Add in substance use and it’s this kind of perfect storm of all these risk factors hitting a person right at the most vulnerable time in their development, and when they don’t have the external structure that family brings readily available to them whilst studying away from home.”
The first part of the U-Flourish survey study was conducted in September and focused on the scope of need students already have when they first arrive at university. The study engaged a total of 3,020 students, nearly 60 per cent of all incoming students. The follow-up portion of the survey study, completed in March by more than 67 per cent of the participants, asked students to describe how their first year went – academically, emotionally, socially, and from an access to mental health care perspective.
When combined and cross-referenced with academic outcome information, the survey will provide a full snapshot of the incoming university student population in terms of health, mental health, and mental health care need.
“Through U-Flourish research we plan to develop an evidence-informed engaging, effective, and coordinated system of mental health care, to address student need from transient distress to emergent psychiatric illness. Further we can determine from this research going forward what universal and targeted interventions might be helpful and also suggest system level changes based on the evidence,” Dr. Duffy says. “It’s a brand new area of research and pioneering work for me as an academic researcher. I think it’s really exciting and I am quite sure it will be meaningful for the students and their families in a very real way.”
Dr. Duffy has been offered a highly-competitive Visiting Fellowship at All Souls College, University of Oxford to further develop the collaborative student mental health research and the team has applied for further external grant funding.
Dr. Duffy feels that by engaging students in every step of the research and translation process the outcomes will be representative and highly informative and impactful.
“I think there was a high response rate because students are really interested in this topic. They realize how important it is and they want to have input,” she says. “Secondly we partnered with students to help us know how to engage students through branding, messaging, in-person events.”
A key element of U-Flourish was the work by a group of dedicated students in creating and conducting the survey, including Daniel Rivera (Artsci’19) and Hannah Foran (Artsci’19) who had both previously worked as Peer Health Educators in Health Promotion in Student Wellness Services and were responsible for engaging with first-year students and getting them to participate in the survey.
Brought in early on in the project as the health promotion and student engagement lead, Rivera was involved in creating an engagement plan, building connections with the research team, and designing the survey. He was also involved in the grant process, gaining invaluable experience as a Life Sciences student.
“It was a really great experience to acquaint myself with the processes for research, especially at a university level,” he says. “Grant writing and academic writing were two big things for me. We contributed to papers that are currently under review and working with so many different people was important as well.”
Throughout their time at Queen’s both have dedicated themselves to helping other students and U-Flourish allowed them to take that effort to another level.
“It just seemed like a great opportunity to get involved and engage with undergraduate students. I didn’t want to pass up a chance where you could really help and make change to the mental health pathways that we have here at Queen’s,” Foran says. “The first year of university can be a hard time so anything you can make it easier for someone I felt I had to do it.”
Dr. Duffy has established a track-record in pioneering longitudinal multidisciplinary research with international collaborations and peer-reviewed national and international funding and awards including a Canada Research Chair in youth at risk for mood disorders and suicide. She is now turning her attention to longitudinal multidisciplinary research to advance outcomes for university students and under her leadership Queen’s is poised to take the lead on this national and international initiative.
To learn more about U-Flourish, visit the Student Wellness Services website.
Note: This article originally appeared in the Queen’s Gazette.