The University of Michigan, along with seven other U.S. institutions, has adopted the Okanagan Charter. Megan Ocelnik/Daily. Buy this photo.

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In an effort to become a “health promoting” university, the University of Michigan and seven other institutions have adopted the Okanagan Charter. The charter’s mission is to call on colleges and universities to “embed health into all aspects of campus culture and to lead health promotion action and collaboration locally and globally.”

The charter — which was created at the 2015 International Conference on Health Promoting Universities and Colleges in Kelowna, British Columbia — is named in acknowledgement of the Okanagan nation, a First Nations and Native American group based mainly in British Columbia and Washington state. Other U.S. universities signed onto the charter include the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Northern Illinois University and University of California, Berkeley.

The charter outlines a framework for colleges and universities to follow, suggesting specific action areas where institutions can incorporate health promotion into daily life. Some of the recommendations include implementing more opportunities on campuses for faculty and students to engage with each other and introducing services that prioritize respect and health of the environment. 

Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones worked closely with the Okanagan Charter initiative and served as a co-chair of the Student Mental Health Committee, a group tasked with finding ways to comprehensively address student mental health needs. As co-chair, she recommended that the University adopt the charter as a way to embed health into every aspect of campus life.

Blake Jones said though the University has informally been part of a network of international health promoting universities and colleges, taking the additional step to formally adopt the charter is central to building the infrastructure needed to prioritize health across the University.

“It calls on schools around the world to commit to embedding health into every aspect of what you’re doing on campus, not just having an office that works on wellness on their own and kind of in isolation, and to collaborate around health promotion locally and globally,” Jones said.

Mary Jo Desprez, director of Wolverine Wellness at University Health Services, co-chaired the committee to recommend adopting the charter. Desprez said she believes the charter will allow the University to better proactively promote health among students, rather than just react to health issues when they arise.

“We are health-promoting, we can be health responsive and we can be health reactive,” Desprez said. “I think COVID-19 sort of showed us that we actually have to do all of those things, and that’s really what the Okanagan Charter is talking about.”

Amy Dittmar, senior vice provost for academic and budgetary affairs, serves as the COVID-19 representative for the Office of the Provost. Dittmar said she believes the charter will be instrumental in making sure the University takes a holistic approach in prioritizing student health.

“Health and well-being needs to be more than just something (that is considered) when you’re in a difficult situation and you go get services,” Dittmar said. 

The entire campus, which includes 19 schools and colleges, will be tied together by the goals outlined in the charter, Jones said. 

Last year, the Student Mental Health Committee hosted 14 listening sessions with students, faculty and staff. Jones, Desprez and Dittmar said these sessions taught them that one of the biggest challenges facing students seeking health resources is that they do not know where to look.

“People kept saying, ‘There are so many resources at Michigan, but this place is so big and decentralized, it’s really hard to know where they are.’ And then when you get to a crisis point and need to find them, that’s not the time to be looking,” Jones said. “And so (we will be) doing things to make sure that the resources are more obvious. We’ve pumped up the existing website that we have, but we’re working with ITS staff to think about all these innovative approaches we could take to front-load the resources and make them available to students.”

In addition, Jones said the committee decided it was important to expand and improve resources for Counseling and Psychological Services. Students have frequently noted that long wait times and limited numbers of appointments at CAPS have made it difficult to seek mental health treatment. During the pandemic and semesters of virtual learning, student mental health concerns rose, putting pressure on CAPS to expand their services.

LSA senior Andrew Fleurant, president of the student organization PULSE that promotes student wellness, believes adopting the charter is a step in the right direction for the University in terms of mental well-being. 

“I hope that (the charter) means that we are going to allocate more resources to overall student well-being,” Fleurant said.  “(There are) so many examples where I and my peers see the University lacking, especially in the time of COVID-19. The charter really seems to pinpoint mental well-being, but there are so many different aspects to health and wellness that need to be taken into account.”

In line with these ideas, Desprez believes the holistic approach to health that the charter helps foster is essential because it acknowledges that well-being is tied to identity.

“We approached this work through a lens of equity and inclusion,” Desprez said. “The Okanagan Charter and the collective impact approach sort of bakes that in and embeds it into the process, but identity is at the center of well-being and the Okanagan Charter really helps us use an overarching structure to make sure that we do that.”

Fleurant said University administration sometimes brushes well-being “under the rug,” citing last year’s graduate student worker strike over campus health and safety as a time when maybe people first felt they were being listened to. 

“And there was some change that sort of evolved from that,” Fleurant said. “But, you know, we’re now in this position where we’re still in a pandemic, but the university has really pushed him to have these in person classes and whatnot (and) opening up the big house completely (with) no masks and 109,000 people. So, cool, you want to claim that you’re a health promoting university, that’s great. Let’s actually make that a true statement.”

As a professor, Dittmar said she hopes to implement initiatives that bridge the divide between the University’s administration and the student body.

“Student life and academics sometimes in an administration can be too separate, and so I think breaking down those barriers and bringing them together is a key part of the charter and really a key part of what we’re trying to do (so that) students achieve their goals,” Dittmar said.

Daily Staff Reporter Martina Zacker can be reached at mzacker@umich.edu