You are now in the main content area

TMU introduces holistic approach to well-being

New supports, more whole-community input aim to make TMU a place of greater wellness for all
By: Michelle Grady
June 06, 2023
Two students talking on campus.

TMU is taking a new systems-level approach to well-being on the university campus. Services will be offered out of one building and the new Community Wellbeing unit will look beyond immediate responses to more holistic measures.

When Allan Macdonald, executive director, Student Wellbeing, arrived at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) in 2016, he was surprised to see that the university had 15 full-time counsellors. “I was surprised the demand was high enough to support full caseloads for that many highly trained, regulated health professionals on a university campus,” he says. “To me, that level of demand for support services was a signal that we needed to work together as a community to create approaches to addressing health and well-being related issues.” 

Since then, the need for well-being supports has become even greater. The pandemic has had a major impact on the wider community’s mental health and well-being. A recent study published by the Toronto Foundation on social capital (external link)  highlighted the interconnectedness of one’s overall well-being with one’s connection to community and to others, engagement and access to community supports. For example, of the 4,000 Torontonians surveyed in 2022:

  • 39 per cent reported that they sometimes/rarely/never have people they can depend on when they really need it (compared to 27 per cent in 2018).
  • 56 per cent reported that they always/often have something to look forward to in their life (compared to 71 per cent in 2018).
  • 39 per cent reported low “life satisfaction" (compared to 27 per cent in 2018). Of note, “life satisfaction” is lower among Torontonians aged 18 to 24 and rises steadily with age.

The new Community Wellbeing unit

TMU is now looking to take a systems-level approach to community well-being. This will include the creation of a Wellbeing Steering Committee, a new Community Wellbeing unit and a new community-focused approach to health equity. TMU is joining other Canadian universities in embracing a cross-campus, community-wide approach.

Created in 2019, the Student Wellbeing department has two integrated portfolios supporting Student Integrated Health and Wellbeing, and Academic Accommodation and Learning. These teams will remain integral supports for student well-being, and will be augmented by the new department, Community Wellbeing, which will be headed up by Lee Hodge. Hodge has a wealth of experience in community well-being initiatives, including with Casey House Hospital and as associate director of Student Health at the University of Waikato in New Zealand. 

The new committee, co-chaired by Jen McMillen, vice-provost, students; Patrizia Albanese, interim vice-provost, faculty affairs; and Jenny O’Donnell, chief human resources officer, will be responsible for leading, developing and monitoring a comprehensive campus-level well-being strategy, supported by the Community Wellbeing unit.

Measures for a holistic approach

“Community well-being moves beyond immediate responses to individual challenges, and looks for holistic opportunities to make an impact across the campus community. It's about ‘upstream’ initiatives, and solutions that take into account the social and structural determinants of health. We will be looking beyond mental health to all elements of well-being,” says Hodge.

The Wellbeing Steering Committee will be consulting with the community, deliberating on what the next big areas of focus on campus should be and taking collective action, says Macdonald. “Some considerations might involve the development of healthier learning spaces and finding effective and efficient ways to address student, staff and faculty accommodation needs – we know that any approach or solution will take collaboration across university units and departments.”

Hodge says a more holistic approach means considering the many different things in people's lives and in their communities that contribute to well-being. “That includes things like housing, food security, access to green space, access to physical health services and mental health care,” he says. 

“It also includes acknowledging and addressing systemic and structural barriers to well-being, like racism, poverty and transphobia. These complexities require us to move beyond siloed approaches and supports, toward approaches that address the many different things that people need to flourish.”

Joanne Dallaire, who has been involved with the project in her capacity as university Elder, says that this approach incorporates Indigenous ways of knowing. “Indigenous pedagogy promotes a balance between mind, body, spirit and emotion. This mindful daily practice, when absent, leads to unbalance, and potentially physical and emotional dis-ease.”

Hodge assures the community that this approach is not intended to replace existing services. “From a student perspective, we envision enhanced services within Student Health and Wellbeing. Our unit will work with units and stakeholders across the entire campus community - students, staff and faculty, as well as the wider communities in which we’re located. 

“Since the onset of the pandemic, TMU has been responsive to the impact on our employees’ mental health,” said Cindy Xing, executive director of Total Compensation and Wellbeing in HR. “That's why we implemented a Recharge campaign that included new work norms to support well-being such as meeting-free Fridays, summer hours, additional days off through Recharge days and asking our community to limit email after 6 p.m. and more. This new committee provides an opportunity to strengthen our focus on a holistic strategy for employees that is aligned with a community approach to well-being and mental health support."

Student voices needed

Macdonald says the new approach makes room for student participation and voices. “In the past, students have voiced the need for more information on where to get health services.” As a result, an advisory group that included students was at the centre of changes to syllabus templates to include information about accessing health and well-being supports on campus. Student input will be an important part of the new approach.

A community-wide approach to well-being on campus is key, says Hodge. In addition to students, “We’re tremendously lucky in the TMU environment to have access to expertise, research and innovators making real differences in their fields. We want to work with all members of the campus community to find creative and impactful responses to community issues and create the conditions for a healthy, thriving community.”

“Our aim is to get as many stakeholders at the table as possible to create something that more people see themselves in,” says Hodge. “Our first priorities will be to develop an engagement strategy. We hope you will join us in the opportunity to get this collective effort off the ground.”

In addition to this new approach, TMU is moving forward with bringing all health and wellness initiatives into a central hub in O’Keefe House on campus. The new Student Wellbeing Centre will consolidate all health services currently housed in buildings across campus under one roof.

The new Wellbeing Steering Committee will have its inaugural meeting in the spring 2023. 


Related stories:

More News