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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Communities Practising Care

The BC Campus Project

Sarah Wiebe

Reprinted from the "Campuses" issue of Visions Journal, 2008, 4 (3), pp. 22-23

Going to college or university is not easy. Students may be leaving friends and family behind as they move to a strange new place. In this new place, there are new pressures and relationships. There is also a new freedom, which results in many students making risky choices about drugs and alcohol. It’s also during this time that students may experience their first episode of mental illness.

The 2004 Canadian Campus Survey shows that 29.2% of full-time undergraduate students in Canada were experiencing “elevated psychological distress.”1 The number is much higher for women: 33.5% compared to 23.9% for men. This survey also shows that 32% of undergraduates participated in hazardous/harmful drinking.1-2

Members of the BC Campus Project, who interact with students on a daily basis, inform us that many college and university students are not well informed about mental health experiences and healthy decision-making regarding substance use. When unhealthy behaviour develops, students may be unsure about whether to seek help and where to seek help. They may not reach out for help because they’re afraid of what others will think. Members of the BC Campus Project are aware of these concerns.

What is the Campus Project?

The BC Campus Project is an initiative of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addiction Information. The project works together with BC colleges and universities to develop solutions that support mental health and reduce substance use problems on BC campuses. We support and facilitate creative learning opportunities, with the aim of helping students and staff make changes needed to create healthy and supportive campus communities. These opportunities include mental health promotion, prevention strategies as well as policy review, development and implementation.

The Campus Project encourages a “communities of practice” approach.3-4 The approach supports individuals who have similar interests, to come together and work toward a common goal of improving their practice (i.e., how they contribute to this field of common interest). The model focuses horizontal communication and information sharing, rather than on traditional, top-down, hierarchical approaches to knowledge exchange and decision-making. Network members can be anyone concerned about and involved in improving wellness and reducing substance use problems on campuses.

An important function of the Campus Project is encouraging campus networks to develop supportive mental health and substance use policies. Research tells us that, to deal with mental health and substance use issues at universities and colleges, we need to promote healthy environments, where students feel comfortable seeking the help and support they need.5

Both local and systemic policies play an important role in promoting healthy environments. Some examples of evidence-based policies include:

  • Reducing access to alcohol (i.e., limiting the availability of low-priced drinks at campus bars)

  • Providing support and mental health accommodations (e.g., doing exams in separate rooms, with more time, etc.) for students

  • Developing student connectivity to increase a positive sense of belonging

Growing “communities of practice”

In the first year of the project, which began in 2004, four institutions became involved: Douglas College (Metro Vancouver), University of Victoria, Thompson Rivers University (Kamloops) and University of Northern BC (Prince George).

This first year of the Campus Project focused on building relationships—between these campuses, with the BC Partners and within each campus community. On each campus, working groups came together to brainstorm strategies for prevention, reaching students in need and promoting access, and to review policies through partnerships with administrators.

Members of these working groups included campus faculty, staff and students, as well as off-campus health professionals. Members were recruited by the original Campus Project coordinator. Services and agencies represented include:

  • on-campus counselling services

  • on-campus disability services

  • campus security

  • campus resident advisors

  • administrators from student services

  • off-campus community health members, including the health authorities and mental health workers

In the second year, four more institutions joined the network: Selkirk College (Nelson-Castlegar), and Simon Fraser University, Vancouver Community College and BC Institute of Technology (all in Metro Vancouver). Working groups from these eight campuses came together in various ways, including teleconference meetings and attending workshops.

Now, in the third year of the project, our goal is to add to the relationships built during the first stages of the project. In February 2008 the BC Campus Project hosted a workshop, called Creating Campus Communities of Practice, in Vancouver. The event was facilitated by Dr. Etienne Wenger, a pioneer of the communities of practice research.3-4

This workshop aimed to strengthen the Campus Project working groups by assisting them to develop how-to skills needed for furthering better mental health and healthier substance use on campuses. Over 50 people from across the province attended the workshop, including participants from campuses other than the existing eight members.

Going forward, we hope to continue our work in support of healthier environments for students, staff and faculty, by expanding campus communities of practice right across the province.

About the author
Sarah is Coordinator of the BC Campus Project. She became passionate about mental health advocacy after completing the BC Legislative Internship Program, where she worked for the Ministry of Health and at the legislature. Sarah is also pursuing a master’s degree in political science at the University of Victoria.
  1. Adlaf, E.M., Demers, A. & Gliksman, L. (Eds.). (2005). Canadian Campus Survey 2004. Toronto: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

  2. The survey utilized the World Health Organization AUDIT program definition of “hazardous/harmful” drinking. For more information on the AUDIT, see the WHO fact sheet, Management of substance dependence: Screening and brief intervention.

  3. Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

  4. Wenger, E., McDermott, R. & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

  5. Weitzman, E. (2005). Risk modifying effect of social measures of heavy alcohol consumption, alcohol abuse, harms and secondhand effects: National survey findings. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 59(4), 303-309.


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