Hear from faculty, staff and students

About why studying wellbeing is important for students

What’s Right With You Now?

Learn to see strength in moments of crisis

This project was born out of Frances Garrett‘s desire to support higher education students as a conflagration of stressors swept the globe: the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing climate disaster, and sustained systemic injustice. Her teaching increasingly came to highlight issues of equity and anti-racism, foreground the teaching of specific skills for wellbeing, and stimulate environmental ethics. Her approach to creative, embodied, and contemplative experiential learning practices was increasingly informed in particular by key principles of trauma-sensitive, place-responsive and regenerative sustainability teaching methods.

With the generous support of eCampusOntario’s Virtual Learning Strategy in 2021, Dr. Garrett set out to interview faculty, students, and staff around University of Toronto to learn more about how they were working to support student mental health and wellbeing. Those interviews form the foundation of Windvane.

Windvane is also situated both methodologically and geographically on the land here in Canada. The city of Toronto is located in the Dish With One Spoon Territory. The Dish With One Spoon is a treaty between the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas and Haudenosaunee that bound them to share the territory and protect the land. Subsequent Indigenous Nations and Peoples, Europeans and all newcomers have been invited into this treaty in the spirit of peace, friendship and respect, although the history of colonialism has left a terrible legacy that continues to affect our communities.

How can a commitment to healing-centered engagement draw out teaching and learning practices that are culturally-informed and place-responsive, that enable us to develop awareness of our interconnectedness with place and with the land, as well as with our ancestral lineages and community histories?

In an interview with the online magazine Mad in AmericaHow Western Psychology Can Rip Indigenous Families Apart, Lisa Lacerda-Vandenborn, a professor at the University of Calgary, suggests that we learn to think about mental health as “only one aspect of emotional, spiritual, and physical health,” which are themselves “intertwined to a sense of place, to land, to the teachings of the land, to ancestral teachings, and to a sense of the history of that particular community.” She explains how biomedical psychology’s individualist approach has traumatized Indigenous and other racialized families through its role in the child welfare system, for example, as it has often neglected to see families as systems operating within larger systems of oppression. The onus then falls on individuals to cope in healthier ways, while their context of poverty and lack of social support is allowed to remain unquestioned. As Lacerda-Vandenborn says, That’s where social justice really comes in because we need to attend to our positionality and our intersectionality every time we enter a particular office. We like to think we are all humans, and that’s one aspect of it, but there is power; the analysis of that power is missing.”

Unless we change our approach to wellbeing, the practical changes we try may lead to exhaustion.

“The anthropology of disasters has shown that disasters do not even out inequalities but, on the contrary, deepen and worsen them.”

Anthropologist Sandrine Revet asks in a 2020 interview whether the pandemic should be considered a “natural disaster” rather than a “health crisis”, and she draws on research in the anthropology of disasters to help us think about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting not only individuals’ health, but a whole interconnected web of social, environmental, economic, and political dimensions in addition to individual health. Reading or listening to Kwame Anthony Appiah’s article in The Guardian, A Tale of Two Pandemics: the true cost of Covid in the global south, we can see how much of the world is dealing with “devastating second-order coronavirus effects.” Appiah reminds us, however, how we now have an opportunity to think about building a more fair international order. Revet’s work traces how “survival communities” develop within households, apartment buildings, or neighborhoods, for example, to support the group and its most vulnerable members in times of disaster. Anthropologists look at how stories, art, music, photos, and everyday conversations can give meaning to “extraordinary circumstances.”

How healing-centered engagement and social prescribing fosters wellbeing

Our team’s work on this project is inspired by Dr. Shawn Ginwright‘s approach to ” healing-centered engagement.” Dr. Ginwright’s model helps us understand limitations in “trauma-informed care” – although understanding the effects of trauma in ourselves and our societies is certainly important, it can sometimes focus too much attention on traumas experienced by isolated individuals, and not enough on the effects of collective harm. It may also focus too much on treatment of pathology, and not enough on fostering wellbeing.

Dr. Ginwright writes, “A healing centered approach to addressing trauma requires a different question that moves beyond ‘what happened to you‘ to ‘what’s right with you‘ and views those exposed to trauma as agents in the creation of their own well-being rather than victims of traumatic events.”

In this article in The Conversation, Windvane contributor Professor Kate Mulligan explains how social prescribing helps us get involved in social groups that reconnect us with activities we love and reduce isolation. A key part of this is “self-determination” – listening to an individual and hearing what matters most to them, and then helping them meet those goals. When we meet our goals, we feel more competent and more capable of giving back to others, which fosters interrelated wellbeing. 

Feeling empowered about your own health is critical for communities as well as individuals. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become all the more important to think about working toward wellbeing at the community level. Dr. Mulligan’s 2022 report, ” Strengthening Community Connections: The Future of Public Health is at the Neighbourhood Scale,” commissioned by the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer at the Public Health Agency of Canada, describes four actions critical for supporting communities to take better control of their own health.

Perceptions of mental health on campus

As we face the ravages of climate disruption and social and racial inequities globally, we are also seeing a crisis in student mental health in higher education. Up to 85% of university students report trauma exposure. According to ” Variants Fuel Decline in Student Mental Health,” a January 13, 2022 article in Inside Higher Ed, a recent survey finds “nearly 9 in 10 students believe there is a mental health crisis on college campuses.” The survey of nearly 1,700 students found moreover that “Seventy percent of respondents said they’re experiencing emotional distress or anxiety due to the COVID-19 pandemic and/or the introduction of the Delta and Omicron variants. And 51% said they have more stress and anxiety than they did last January.” That said, some recent data suggests that overall population suicide rates decreased by 32% in Canada in 2020. For some students, being on campus is a significant cause of poor mental health, and the rise of online learning during the pandemic has provided many students with relief. More research is needed, as are more supports for all students.

BIPOC students are often the most affected by an increase in systemic stressors like the pandemic, and so it is especially critical to foster anti-oppressive and salutogenic approaches that focus on restoring healthy forms of individual, cultural, and community identity. But the impact of COVID-19 pandemic puts everyone at risk. Effects of trauma observable in post-secondary learners include behaviors such as difficulty focusing, attending, retaining, and recalling information; tendency to miss classes; challenges with emotional regulation; fear of risk taking; anxiety about deadlines, exams, group work, or public speaking; anger, helplessness, or dissociation when stressed; withdrawal and isolation; and involvement in unhealthy relationships. As University instructors, we can support students at the level of course design, course content, assignment and assessment design, and class community building, by grounding our teaching in the core values of trauma-sensitive pedagogy: safety, trustworthiness, choice and control, collaboration, and empowerment, and by welcoming multiple, culturally-sensitive and intersectionally-nuanced understandings of health and wellbeing.

Student Feedback

In 2019, Windvane creator Dr. Frances Garrett started including a “self-care” assignment in her undergraduate courses at the University of Toronto. Feedback from students on that project inspired the creation of Windvane.

“This self-care assignment is my favorite assignment in all of my courses because it reminds me that not everything is about academics, and allows me to take care of myself without feeling guilty. I took this assignment seriously and tried to give my life a healthy routine, making sure I balance the different components in my life and staying happy and satisfied while also keeping up my grades. I thought about this assignment when doing other assignments in this course as well as when I get overwhelmed or stressed out, reminding myself that there are many suggested techniques that I can do to take better care of myself in every aspect possible.”

University of Toronto student, Fall 2021

“I managed to improve almost all lifestyle behaviors I intended to improve at the beginning of the course. Before the course, I used to deal with stress by smoking cigarettes due to their high reward value. On average, I smoke around 2-3 cigarettes per week, after beginning the self-care plan, I have smoked only 2 cigarettes since September 2021, which is big and unbelievable progress. More than that, I am confident that I had a natural motivation to adhere to the plan, rather than doing it primarily for receiving a high mark.”

University of Toronto student, Fall 2021

I’m glad that I am taking a course that considers self-care in its curriculum as taking care of my body and health is valuable to me and others.”

University of Toronto student, Fall 2021