Learning online during the COVID-19 pandemic challenged all university students differently, but for those in art and design disciplines, summoning the inspiration to create in isolation, without the typical tools of their trade and the input of their peers, and in the midst of widespread public suffering, took a distinct toll.
“All of the specialized equipment they needed to create, and the influence of their classmates, was gone,” said Deanne Fisher, vice-provost of students and international at OCAD University. “Creativity is inherently social, and creative energy is pretty hard to produce from a little desk in the corner of your bedroom.”
Remote learning also hampered the university’s mental health outreach to students, she added. “We didn’t have a way to tell them face to face: it’s OK to not be OK.”
Now, up-and-coming artists at OCAD U and other postsecondary art and design programs across Canada have a new way to take care of their mental health through a project that brings together mindfulness training, events and resources tailored to their creative work. The Mindful Campus Initiative is supported by nearly $4 million from the Public Health Agency of Canada, and is a national effort led by OCAD U. Four other postsecondary institutions are also participating: Concordia University’s faculty of fine arts; York University’s school of the arts, media, performance and design; NSCAD University; and Seneca College’s school of creative arts and animation.
As part of the initiative, OCAD U has partnered with Toronto’s Centre for Mindfulness Studies to develop a 12-week program on the main principles and practices of mindfulness. Four offerings – two in person and two online – will engage students in understanding how noticing their thoughts, emotions and physical sensations as they arise can reduce anxiety, build resiliency and revitalize creativity.
Each of the four modules will include three sessions on topics such as building emotional awareness, reducing habitual reactivity and increasing compassion toward others. Ms. Fisher said that much of the teaching will be tailored to the experiences and sensibilities of art and design students, exploring themes such as the value of art and design in a capitalist society, the creative process, anxiety around critique, and a lack of family support for students’ life choices. The courses will also make use of creative methodologies to engage students in a process of self-reflection on their learning. Weekly gatherings with a mindfulness teacher will provide participants with opportunities to practice mindfulness skills and to ask questions.
The program will also recognize the additional mental health burdens experienced in everyday life by those who identify as Black, Indigenous or as a person of colour, Ms. Fisher said. She explained that Mindful Campus integrates life scenarios that speak to racialized students’ experiences, and offers mindfulness approaches to help tend to one’s mental health in the face of structural oppression and trauma. And this September, the program will offer sessions that are geared specifically to BIPOC students and led by BIPOC facilitators.
The program recently launched at OCAD U and will roll out at the other participating schools this fall. To raise awareness about Mindful Campus, OCAD U hosted two mindfulness pop-up activities, a basketball game and a lesson on how to make different types of tea – activities that Ms. Fisher said ease students into the basic tenets of mindfulness (which can be promoted through play) while also helping to strengthen students’ sense of community at the institution.
“When you’re under a lot of stress, things can feel like they’re out of your control,” Ms. Fisher said. “I’m hoping this program is seen by students as a set of tools and practices that gives them a sense of self-agency and that their well-being is actually, to some extent, in their own hands.”
At NSCAD U, Jennifer Abrahamson, interim director of opportunity and belonging, is excited to use this evidence-based wellness modality to strengthen students’ mental health. A counselling therapist by training, Ms. Abrahamson was first hired by NSCAD U in June of 2021 to support students grappling with the fear and isolation triggered by the pandemic. She said that today, the difficulty for many students is social anxiety.
“Learning in high school online and then trying to transition suddenly back to in-person learning is its own kettle of fish,” Ms. Abrahamson said. “When you have non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, it can actually reduce some of the anxiety of social interactions.”
The initiative’s website, mindfulcampus.ca, is in development but will soon offer mindfulness resources, including skills-building videos that the institutions will also share on their social media channels. As well, organizers said that a cross-institution peer support network is in the works that will enable students to support each other in learning and practicing the mindfulness techniques they learn through the program. Sandra Gabriele, vice-provost of innovation in teaching and learning at Concordia, noted that the program serves as a preventative measure that can complement each institution’s existing mental health and acute care services.
Dr. Gabriele explained that the university is aiming to provide more of these early-stage supports that offer “a better opportunity to intervene before a student really needs to go and see a professional. This is how we can promote well-being in the classroom and alleviate some of the students’ pressures.”