In Conversation: Rodrigo Narro Perez on Mac’s Mental Health Strategy

As advocates for undergraduate students, part of our work at OUSA involves mentoring student leaders and empowering them to become their own advocates. It’s always rewarding to see our student leaders make real change on their campuses. This year, former Steering Committee member and VP Education at McMaster University, Rodrigo Narro Perez, was a key player in soliciting student feedback and publicizing McMaster’s new mental health and well-being strategy. I’d like to share his success today.

The impetus for this strategy actually came from a student-led initiative, the McMaster Student Health Forum held in April 2013, where student leaders, mental health professionals, administrative leaders, and academics recommended a campus-wide strategy be adopted. As a passionate mental health advocate, Rodrigo wanted to get involved with the strategy development process as earlier as possible. Here is his perspective on the project:

OUSA Research Analyst: What was your role in developing the mental health and well-being strategy?

Rodrigo Narro Perez: The strategy and the work by the co-leads actually started in January 2014, so some of the preliminary research work had already started before I got on board. When I ran for VP I knew that the MSU should be a big stakeholder in this, so I talked to the co-leads and told them that the MSU and myself were invested in working with the strategy and things started from there.

It became my role to act as the main lead/consultant from the MSU for the strategy. My role in the formation of the strategy consisted of a variety of things. The first was to encourage student leaders and students with lived experience to provide feedback as the strategy was being formed. This involved co-hosting Town Halls where the co-leads and myself spoke in front of about 30 students and hosting small focus groups of five to 10 students last summer to continue to provide feedback.

Next, around the end of February, I worked with the co-leads to organize the launch of the strategy as well as the MSU’s mental health and well-being campaign, #MacTalks

Lastly, I was asked to stay on as a member of the Mental Health and Well Being Advisory Committee—a position that now has been solidified in the governance structure.

OUSA: What key issues is the new strategy intended to solve?

RNP: The strategy hopes to address 5 key priorities (you can find more info on them here). Briefly, the goal is to improve: education and resources, responses to distressed students, accommodations policy, capacity at the Student Wellness Centre, and establish research and health policies.

More specifically though, students with mental health concerns have sometimes found themselves in situations that overlapped different departments. For example, a student may be caught in residence (residence life department) doing something that breaks the student code of conduct (student code of conduct). This student is then sent to the student appeal board, where it turns out some of the reason for the violation of the rule related to the student’s mental illness (student wellness center). This student might also be registered as having a disability and needs certain accommodations (student accessibility services). A case like this involves four different student affairs departments who often are not talking to each other, and have important pieces of an overall larger story. Students feel like they are being thrown from department to department, and little coordination is done. The strategy hopes to address this.

We’ve also found that the current policies, processes, competencies, and pedagogies used to accommodate students with mental health concerns and illness are often restrictive. For example, right now a student can only receive academic accommodations if they are medically diagnosed with a mental health illness. Mental health concerns can manifest themselves at any time, for variable periods of times. Students who demonstrate mental health concerns for short periods of times, like a couple of months, are often not medically diagnosed and thus cannot receive accommodations that they should be receiving.

Ultimately, the strategy hopes to create a McMaster campus that is an inclusive, supportive, and healthy environment. By doing this, any person—students, faculty, or staff—will feel supported regardless of whether they are experiencing a physical or mental health issue.

OUSA: What types of changes are you most optimistic for?

RNP: Actually, I’m excited for every single one as each priority looks at a different aspect of McMaster’s mental health services and resources, which all play a part in supporting students who have difficulties.

OUSA: How will these changes benefit students in the short and long term?

RNP: In regards to what will benefit students in the short-term, the increased capacity in the Student Wellness Centre will definitely be felt come September, with thousands of hours of more counselling support, students will be able to feel better supported during the school year. This month, over 100 campus staff will be trained, and the effects of this training will affect students come September.

In the long run, I’m excited for the accommodations policy revamp. A lot of the stresses, barriers, and roadblocks students encounter in undergrad are due to policies, such as this one, that are not truly accommodating. The policy changes will hopefully impact anyone with a mental health concern, especially those who may not have disclosed those concerns or who may not be medically diagnosed.

I want to thank Rodrigo again for sharing his success story with us. I would also like to commend McMaster for its commitment to student involvement throughout this process. I look forward to the policy changes and discussions in the year ahead.