President Ono participates in UBC “mental health literacy’’ talk

UBC Dean of Education Blye Frank hosted his inaugural public lecture Frankly Speaking yesterday evening, focusing on the topic of “mental health literacy.’’ UBC President Santa J. Ono participated and highlighted the importance of addressing the stigma surrounding mental health. This is not a new topic for Ono, as he invested a great deal of time on the topic at his previous post as president at the University of Cincinnati (UC).

The talk also featured presentations from psychiatrist Dr. Stan Kutcher of Dalhousie University, as well as the assistant director of UBC's Indigenous Teacher Education Program (NITEP), Jessica La Rochelle. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also contributed a written introduction that was read by Frank at the beginning of the talk.

La Rochelle spoke first and spent time describing the struggles and pressures that Indigenous students face when they come to university. She highlighted how many are the first in their families to attend university and face heightened financial difficulties.  She also presented on initiatives taken by NITEP and its recently established mental health and wellness program, which provides counselling to struggling students.

Kutcher elaborated on the broader need for increased mental health literacy, which he defined as the need for specific knowledge of language of mental health terms to better understand and identify mental health issues in students.  He also described “the human connection” as being “the key to improving the human condition.”

The final speaker of the evening was Ono, who spoke about Brogan Dulle — a UC student who went missing before eventually being found dead. The final cause of death was later revealed to be suicide. He spoke more about the reaction of the Cincinnati community and the efforts to increase mental health awareness that followed.       

Ono also briefly talked about his and his brother's struggles with mental health. 

He ended the talk by emphasizing the need for more efforts and “rigorous research” about mental health to be put in place in an organized manner at both the provincial and national level.

During a post-lecture interview with The Ubyssey, Ono talked about the differences in mental health programming between UBC and UC. 

‘‘I can just say that anecdotally from my interactions, UBC has a much more mature program on dealing with mental health and illness, and that there is a lot more invested,’’ said Ono. 

“Even with that being the case, I and the executive are — as we speak and even as early as this morning — speaking about what more we can do.’’           

In terms of plans and initiatives over both a short-term and long-term time frame, Ono mentioned how in his opinion, although the number of counsellors was greatly increased over the last six months, UBC “[needs] to include more psychiatrists” as well.  

“That’s something that is a little bit harder to do in terms of supply and demand and competition in the market. It’s nevertheless something that we have to try to solve moving forward,’’ he said.

Ono additionally noted that it may be advantageous to talk to students at a medical school level about how rewarding psychiatry is and that UBC is in a unique position to improve available research.

“Because [UBC] has one of the premiere brain health centers in the world, [it can] really contribute to research for mental illness and that’s something that really is a priority for the institution,” he said. 

In the future, Ono plans to go to Ottawa to speak with government officials about mental health. This was something he had done for UC during his tenure there when he went to a mental health summit organized by US President Obama at the White House in 2014.