University is a time of transition and new challenges for all students. First-year students are often experiencing life on their own for the first time away from home. Post-graduate students are working to balance the demands of research, studying and even teaching courses themselves. With all these stresses, making time for physical and mental health is critical for both academic success and personal well-being. 

The University of Waterloo Campus Wellness team works throughout the year to provide on-campus support for all students, including healthcare, nutritional and dietician support, counselling services and more. 

While Campus Wellness covers a wide spectrum of support, Melissa Strachan, associate director of Counselling Services, is focusing on improving mental health support for students. 

“There has been a lot of interest across campus in investing in mental health support. This year, there was a President's task force specifically focused on student mental health. Academic advisors, who are often the first point of contact for students, are asking to be trained on understanding how to identify mental health challenges and be able to direct students to the right resources,” Strachan says.

Campus Wellness provides staff training called “Responding to Students in Distress.” The workshop is designed to help any staff member, from professors to campus facilities professionals, know what to look for and how to respond appropriately.  

Serving the diverse student community of the University also means listening to feedback and working together with racialized and equity-deserving students to bring new programs to campus. 

“Campus Wellness has been working hard over the past few years to make equity a priority in our work, and providing services to our extremely diverse student community is a part of that,” Strachan says. 

Supporting students of all backgrounds

Strachan adds that investments in student well-being are crucial as the University continues its mission to educate and inspire tomorrow’s leaders. However, Strachan says they still have a long way to go to be able to support students of all backgrounds. 

“Wellness services are what students need to be able to participate fully in their academic program. Funding to help support new programs and expand existing programs is wonderful,” Strachan says. 

Supporting Muslim students is an area Strachan hopes the Campus Wellness team can expand programming for in the near future.  

“We have a large population of Muslim students who have come to us and explained that they have to pay out of pocket for culturally responsive mental health care when other students can access mental health support through their university tuition. Donations can help us expand our services and allow us to bring in more clinicians and practitioners of different backgrounds to support our students,” Strachan says.  

Earlier this year, a student who is a member of the University of Waterloo Black Association for Student Expression came to Strachan with the goal of hosting a wellness program during Black History Month designed for Black students. 

Strachan connected with Selam Debs, a yoga counsellor and instructor she knows in the Waterloo community. Debs leads a restorative yoga class that is specifically focused on racial trauma and healing. With funds from the Campus Wellness fund, Strachan was able to invite 13 students to participate. 

In addition to being a yoga and wellness professional, Debs is an anti-racism educator and activist, singer, songwriter and speaker. She says that yoga and meditation practices can benefit mental and physical health, especially when dealing with how traumas can live in our bodies. 

“Many Black, Indigenous and racialized folks often live with that trauma. Our mental health system doesn't address that. It doesn't talk about how racial trauma lives in the body,” Debs says.  

“So yoga and meditation in general, and other healing modalities, can be very supportive.” 

Creating the right environment for yoga and meditation sessions is critical. Debs says that creating a safe space to share helps build a sense of community within the participants where they can feel free to share their experiences, traumas and learnings. 

Black students pose after their yoga session

“Community is important in relationship to healing. In this session for Black students, we had the yoga elements, meditation elements, the trauma-informed lens aspect and the community. All of that together allows us to create safer and braver spaces for healing,” Debs says. 

The session happened to be scheduled during a massive snowstorm, but Strachan says all the students braved the blizzard to participate in the session.  

“It was really powerful because these students shared how overwhelmed and stressed they felt at the session's beginning. At the end of the session, they shared how grateful they were that they came and how relaxed they felt,” Strachan says. 

The program led the students through a discussion about trauma and how it affects their bodies. The students were then led through movements to help relieve some of that trauma. 

“As Black people, we hold trauma in our bodies. The session went beyond yoga and movement to help educate and validate the students’ feelings. Many of them said they didn’t realize they were holding on to some of the trauma they’ve experienced being a Black person,” Strachan says.  

“It was just a wonderful opportunity to get to witness, be part of and to see the impact that it had.” 

On Giving Tuesday (November 28, 2023), friends of Campus Wellness will come together to support the mission of promoting physical, mental and emotional wellbeing at the University of Waterloo. On Giving Tuesday 2022, more than $8,000 was raised for Campus Wellness. With your support this year, we can raise even more to make a real impact on the University of Waterloo community!