Santa Ono shares personal struggle at student mental health summit

Last month, UBC President Santa Ono spoke about his personal struggle with suicide at the Healthy Minds | Healthy Campuses Summit. Co-led by the BC Canadian Mental Health Association and the Centre for Addictions Research of BC, the event aimed to improve campus mental wellness through collaboration between students, professionals, faculty, administrators and community partners.

Ono has tried twice to take his own life – once at age 14, then again in his late twenties – and he talked about those experiences with the summit’s 150 attendees.

Ono first shared his stories at a 2016 fundraiser in honour of Brogan Dulle, a University of Cincinnati student who committed suicide during Ono's tenure as the university's president. The story attracted international media attention, and he has continued to speak about it since.

“I was overwhelmed at the response,” he said. “It said to me that people felt it was helpful for somebody in a level of leadership and visibility to speak openly and try to remove the stigma.”

UBC professor of psychiatry Dr. Michael Krausz agrees. According to him, the president speaking so openly about mental illness could contribute to its de-stigmatization while assuring those in need that their institution can help them.

“Ono is setting a very important example for students as well as for faculty,” said Krausz.

As a result, speaking engagements like these have become a part of Ono's wider efforts to garner support for youth at risk of mental illness.

“It [has] become somewhat of a crusade for me,” said Ono. “Far too often the case is that people who are struggling with mental health issues keep it to themselves, and that leaves them without the support networks they need.”

According to the 2016 National College Health Assessment survey of 44,000 students from across the country, the number of Canadian post-secondary students saying they considered suicide in the last year is 22 per cent. About 13 per cent said they had considered suicide to the point of formulating a plan – an increase of 3.5 per cent since the same survey was conducted in 2013.

Beyond speaking engagements, Ono is also developing a new vision and strategic plan for UBC. He hopes that through this process, UBC will be able to find more ways to improve access to support systems for students and faculty while boosting mental health research.

Improving support systems

In 2015, UBC’s mental health services were found by various reports to be over-subscribed and under-resourced.

In response, the school established a $2.5 million annual investment into mental health that has enabled the hiring of twice as many counselling staff, among other key improvements. Ono added that the school is considering even more investment, and will regularly assess if it is meeting students’ needs.

A new “collaborative care model” was also developed at UBC and launched last year in order to “provide a comprehensive system of mental health support for students,” according to Janet Teasdale, managing director of student development and services.

Incentivizing mental health research

According to Ono, he was attracted to UBC partially because of its unique position to be a world leader in mental health research.

In particular, he pointed to the university’s ongoing research, which ranges from identifying molecular and genetic causes of anxiety and depression to developing the best approaches for public policy and education regarding mental health.

“I don't think there are more than five to ten universities globally that can match UBC's capacity to understand and make meaningful changes to support students at risk,” he said.

Generating outside support

At the 2016 inaugural mental health literacy talk at UBC, Ono stated that he would be encouraging more support from federal government officials in Ottawa. He has since taken a step towards that goal by meeting with the president of Universities Canada, an advocacy organization for 96 Canadian schools.

Lastly, Ono noted that he was encouraged by BC’s recent announcement of a $165 million investment into mental health and substance use services. This investment is to be rolled out over three years, and will be in addition to the $1.45 billion already spent by the health ministry each year.