Dr. Ken Fowler joined the Student Wellness and Counselling Centre (SWCC) as director on Aug. 1, 2020, in the midst of preparing for a primarily remote fall semester for students across all campuses.
Dr. Fowler, along with a dedicated team of staff covering areas including physician and nursing services, psychology, and wellness, have moved swiftly to ensure students have access to the campus health services they need, despite the challenges of the global pandemic.
In this Q&A, on the heels of World Mental Health Day on Oct. 10, Dr. Fowler, highlights the supports and services available to Memorial students, describes the pivot to virtual care and shares tips for taking care of yourself during times of stress.
Q: How does the SWCC support students? What supports and services are available?
A: First of all, it is important to note that “wellness” is more of an aspiration than a characteristic, and our commitment doesn’t begin at the doors of the SWCC. We recognize that it is highly influenced by attributes of life at Memorial and learning experiences, as well as “university community factors” such as leadership, cohesion, and acceptance.
Therefore, we believe to fully support student wellness, the SWCC must function as part of a broader network of important resources and services available for students. For instance, our internal partnerships with Student Life and faculties and schools, and external partnerships with Eastern Health and other community entities such as CHANNAL, are vital and something we are working very hard to foster.
“We are open for business.”
Within the centre itself, we provide medical and counselling services to our students, as well as initiatives aimed at health promotion, disease prevention and wellness education. Our dedicated multidisciplinary team includes counsellors, doctoral residents, registered psychologists and their professional students who provide free mental health support.
Our medical professionals provide multidisciplinary care with expertise in family practice, psychiatry and college health. Our Wellness Navigators empower students to strive for balance and wellness through becoming aware of and taking steps towards a healthier, happier more successful life through a variety of activities and mindfulness techniques.
Q: How has the pandemic affected the centre’s operations?
A: In response to COVID-19, we had to quickly change course. We immediately suspended in-person operations and moved to offering services virtually and over the phone for the most part, with some in-person appointments taking place as needed in a safe manner, following all public health directives to ensure students and staff health and safety. Changing our care delivery mode from being a largely in-person one to largely distance was not easy, but we got there. I am proud of our progress in this area.
So, today we are open for business.
Similar to many clinics in the community, the majority of our physician visits now occur virtually, which means students anywhere in the province can avail of care. Similarly, mental health counselling also occurs remotely, and it would seem that our providers and those receiving our services find value in the new virtual delivery model. As a result, we certainly see opportunities for hybrid models of care in the future, which will ensure broader access, particularly for those learning from a distance.
Also specific to our response to the pandemic, we were recently asked by Public Health to conduct COVID-19 testing for the small number of students who have been in quarantine in residence upon arrival from abroad. We’re certainly happy to oblige, and this has been running very smoothly. Our next order of business is to plan and deliver flu clinics while abiding by strict Public Health directives. Stay tuned for information on this.
Q: With the ongoing global pandemic, this is a stressful time for all of us. What has the demand for SWCC services been like over these last few months?
A: Well, since the SWCC was deemed an essential service, we have been operating since March. We have seen a slight increase in demand for our counselling since the semester began, and I expect that to continue. The key to all this will be optimizing our responsivity despite being virtual. This is something we’re paying a lot of attention to!
“We are very eager to welcome [first-year students] when in-person campus life resumes.”
I know this is a challenging time for students. While Memorial has a strong legacy of distance education, I can appreciate that the required shift to remote and online learning has not been easy for many, professors and teaching assistants included. I would argue that one of the most health-enhancing characteristics of any university is the ability for students to participate in campus life.
For many, Memorial is a haven in terms of support and acceptance. It is incredibly unfortunate that our first-year students haven’t had the opportunity to discover their personal social niche, and we are very eager to welcome them when in-person campus life resumes. In the meantime, there is certainly a void that we have been tirelessly trying to fill through any creative means imaginable. In many ways, COVID-19 has created an incredibly challenging social dilemma.
Q: Many students may be feeling anxious or depressed right now. Can you share any thoughts on this? What steps for support might you suggest?
A: I know it may sound a little “soft”, but from a community perspective, I’m convinced that how our people interact will be vitally important for mental health.
Genuine humility, concern and compassion exhibited among faculty, students and staff, as well as dedicated efforts to create and foster supportive communities within classrooms, and across faculties will do much to support all involved, particularly students. While we await a safe return to campus, we have to be sensitive to our colleagues and classmates in terms of wellness, and advocate for one another.
“Do something for yourself every day to help you stay relaxed and centred.”
In terms of SWCC support, it is important that students know they can come see us – our professionals are here to help. If students are not ready to talk, or feel they would benefit from quality online resources (there are many), that’s fine, too. In fact, online and community resources can be the right route to wellness for many.
I recommend students visit online for a detailed list of resources. Bridge the gApp is an online resource offered by the provincial government designed to support mental wellness. The site includes resources for multiple mental health challenges and offers a toolbox with various options for well-being.
Q: For many students, the shift to online learning has translated into hours holed up in one room in front of a computer screen. What advice could you give students to overcome the physical and mental challenges associated with remote learning?
A: I would advise students to get up from the screen as often as possible. Make time for yourself away from your studies. Read a book that’s not required for a course, go for a jog, watch a movie or listen to music! Do something for yourself every day to help you stay relaxed and centred.
If you have two back-to-back classes in a morning, get up and jog on the spot, walk around your space, go outside for a minute or two if you can. Stretching is important to your physical health, and looking away from the screen when you can is also important.
If you find you are having difficulty coping with online learning and these kinds of breaks and exercises don’t work, talk to someone. Reach out to a friend or family member, a neighbour, or, of course, the SWCC.
NOTE: Students with urgent mental health concerns should avail of the following community based services:
- 24-hour mental health crisis line: (709) 737-4668 (local) or 1-888-737-4668 (provincewide).
- Mobile Crisis Response Team: 1-888-737-4668 St. John’s region.
- 24-hour Walk-in Psychiatric Assessment Unit at the Waterford Hospital Site on Waterford Bridge Road, St. John’s: (709) 777-3021 or (709) 777-3022.
- Health Sciences Centre Emergency Department on Columbus Drive in St. John’s: (709) 777-6335.
Visit here for more information on Student Wellness and Counselling Centre offerings.