Over two million young adults attend postsecondary institutions in Canada. This can be a time of great excitement, independence and growth – but students also face substantial increases in health-risk behaviours, including poor mental health, decreased physical activity, increased substance use, poor nutrition and stress.
Now, more than ever, we are facing a mental-health challenge on Canadian campuses. This is greatly amplified in the extraordinary times we are now living in during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like K-12 schools, the postsecondary setting should be considered critical for health promotion. There are subsidized facilities, programs and staff commonly available to support students, increasingly through online delivery. In other words, we can intervene.
To develop or evaluate interventions at the postsecondary level, a mechanism is first required to assess the health and well-being of students. As the adage suggests, “If you can’t measure it you can’t improve it.” Collected data can be used to guide decisions about where institutional priorities should be placed in terms of programs and policies, and for ongoing evaluation of those decisions.
In the absence of a coordinated Canadian system for collecting health data, some colleges and universities have been subscribing to the U.S.-based National College Health Assessment service of the American College Health Association (NCHA-ACHA). This tool, however, has a number of important limitations including its length, validity of the measures, and relevance to the Canadian context. To address these limitations, we have created an agile Canadian health and well-being measurement system, known as the Canadian Campus Wellbeing Survey/Bien-être sur les campus canadiens (CCWS/BECC).
Validated and reliable measures
With funding from the Rossy Foundation and administrative support from the University of British Columbia, we first engaged Canadian campus stakeholders to develop a consensus framework regarding health and well-being measurement priorities, and then convened an expert research panel to identify best measures to assess those priorities. The CCWS includes validated and reliable measures of positive mental health, and multiple risk and protective factors including school connectedness, social and emotional skills, academic performance, safety, sleep, exercise, food security and substance use.
The student-level survey is a modular design with a 20-minute core CCWS survey and institutions may elect to add additional items to the tool for their own specific needs. The survey instrument then went through further refinement after pilot testing. A technical report describing the results of this process and the survey itself (including the French version of the survey) is available at the CCWS website. In parallel, work started on developing the surveillance infrastructure to be housed at UBC in collaboration with the Student Experience Evaluation and Research Unit of the UBC office of the vice-president, students. A vital feature of the CCWS is an improved feedback mechanism where institutions have timely access to visual representations of their data and normative references, and the capacity to customize analyses.
With funding from the British Columbia Ministry of Advanced Education, Skills and Training, the CCWS has now been implemented at the majority of public postsecondary institutions across the province. Institutions will be able to compare themselves to the consortium of B.C. institutions – without institutional identification but rather by other relevant categories by applying filters such as geographic location, institution type, and other respondent demographic variables (such as program, year of study, gender identity). By transcending institutional boundaries in the name of student well-being, institutions can identify programs, policies and practices that are effectively improving student well-being on one campus – and it provides the rationale and evidence to implement similar practices to other campus and community programs.
The Okanagan Charter
The CCWS supports implementation of the 2015 Okanagan Charter: An International Charter for Health Promoting Universities and Colleges, which calls on higher education to embed health into everyday operations, business practices and academic mandates, as well as to lead health promotion action and collaboration. Prioritizing student health by establishing policies and programs based on evidence will assist in placing student well-being at the heart of the academic enterprise. Evidence-based decisions need to be anchored in meaningful data. Having a Canadian mechanism for assessing the health and well-being of postsecondary students is now more important than ever – we need to be able to assess the impact of COVID-19 and its likely long-term repercussions for mental health. Such data will be essential for informing decisions about how best to help our students.
For more information about the CCWS and how your postsecondary institution can get involved, please get in touch or join our mailing list at [email protected]. We are currently inviting expressions of interest for participation in the 2020-2021 academic year.
Guy Faulkner is a professor, and holder of a Canadian Institutes of Health Research-Public Health Agency of Canada Chair in Applied Public Health, in the school of kinesiology at the University of British Columbia.