Global perspective shapes future of UBC student mental health

Students walking on Main Mall at UBC in the autumn.

Pictured: UBC students on Main Mall. Image credit: Martin Dee/UBC.

A three-year, multi-centre, randomized controlled trial (RCT) with the goal of improving mental health and substance use outcomes through integration of e-mental health with traditional health services is beginning at the University of British Columbia under the leadership of Dr. Daniel Vigo, newly appointed Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry.

The trial, which aims to integrate online screening tools and online mental health support with traditional services for UBC’s more than 60,000 students, is a Health Canada-funded project based on campus, and will also include Simon Fraser University and the University of Toronto. The online tools are being developed in partnership with Harvard Medical School, where Dr. Vigo earned his doctorate in Public Health, became Faculty member, and taught Global Mental Health before joining the faculty at UBC.

“We know that digital tools can be effective for helping individuals manage their mental health and substance use,” said Dr. Vigo. “But we need to better understand users’ needs and how best to deploy resources and integrate them with brick-and-mortar clinical services.”

The project is unique in that it is a research endeavour that includes an epidemiological survey and an RCT, but is also a health systems integration project in collaboration with UBC Student Services. Beginning soon, an anonymous survey will be sent weekly throughout the academic year to a stratified random sample of students in order to get a granular picture of students’ mental health and substance use-related needs. Dr. Vigo will work closely with Ainsley Carry, Vice-President, Students; Heather Robertson, Director, Student Health Services; and Cheryl Washburn, Director, Counselling Services to facilitate access to mental health services and intervention support for undergraduate and graduate students at increased risk, following the stepped-care model.

“The university is a microcosm, which makes it a unique environment to deploy, test, and integrate e-health tools,” said Dr. Vigo. “Here we are able to connect with existing mental health and wellness resources on campus with the goal of developing a truly integrated platform that is useful and responsive, targeting self-reported needs considering how those needs evolve over the academic year. Once we understand how it works here, we can look at scaling up to larger communities in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions. At its core, this is an implementation research project.”

Dr. Lakshmi Yatham, Head of the Department of Psychiatry, underscored that this project is aligned with a vision for UBC Psychiatry that includes the development of strategic partnerships in the areas of mental health and addictions with Federal and Provincial Ministries, as well as Health Authorities.

“The goal is to co-develop solutions for our community’s most pressing needs leveraging state-of-the-art academic tools, the informed input from decision-makers, and the insights resulting from collaborations of global scope,” said Dr. Yatham.

The project is in the early stages, but invitations will be sent soon to a randomly selected stratified cohort of UBC students to participate in a weekly anonymous needs-assessment survey that will help researchers understand health system usage and mental health needs on campus. The Canada Student Mental Health Survey World was adapted by Dr.  Vigo and Dr. Ron Kessler, as part of the World Health Organization (WHO) World Mental Health Surveys Initiative, a global mental health epidemiology collaboration. Dr. Vigo is chair of the initiative’s Policy and Services Working Group, and represents Canada in the WHO World Mental Health International College Student (WMH-ICS) Initiative.

Dr. Vigo has a long-standing collaboration with the World Health Organization, and in addition to his work on behalf of students, he is currently leading a study of the disease burden of mental and substance use disorders for each country in the Americas, and developing a global coverage assessment framework to track advances toward the Sustainable Development Goals related to mental health. The mental health goals of WHO have informed the strategic direction of other global initiatives, including the APEC Digital Hub for Mental Health which is led by Department of Psychiatry faculty members Dr. Raymond Lam and Dr. Erin Michalak.