U-M joins network of US health-promoting universities

September 1, 2021
Written By:
Lauren Love

As part of a comprehensive plan to improve student well-being on campus, the University of Michigan has adopted the Okanagan Charter (PDF) and joined the United States Health Promoting Campuses Network, a cohort of seven U.S. universities committed to becoming health-promoting institutions.

The Okanagan Charter: An International Charter for Health Promoting University and Colleges calls on postsecondary schools to embed health into all aspects of campus culture and to lead health-promotion action and collaboration locally and globally.

Created in June 2015 at the University of British Columbia, the charter provides institutions with a common vision, language and principles, and calls them to action. The U.S. network allows members to support each other and collaborate on the work of becoming health-promoting campuses.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham was the first in the U.S. to adopt the Okanagan Charter in December 2020. Along with UAB and U-M, the first U.S. cohort of campuses includes: Northern Illinois University; University at Albany, SUNY; University of California, Berkeley; University of California, Irvine; University of North Florida; and Western Washington University.

Similar networks are active internationally, including in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Germany, Canada and Latin America.

“We are proud to adopt the Okanagan Charter at the University of Michigan,” President Mark Schlissel said. “We believe the adoption of the charter in addition to the many health initiatives already underway and in development on campus sends a strong message about the university’s commitment to fostering a healthy campus and environment.”

By adopting the charter, each health-promoting university is making institutional commitments to the charter and its own strategic plan for implementing health promotion on its campus and in its community. By doing so, health-promoting universities and colleges improve the health of the people on their campuses and strengthen the ecological, social and economic sustainability of their communities and wider society.

U-M leaders said the charter has two calls to action that align with the priorities outlined in the recently adopted Student Mental Health Innovative Approaches Review Committee Report and the university’s commitment to a comprehensive systems approach.

To foster conditions that improve mental health on campus, the expanded effort will provide resources for individual action and a framework that supports systemic change, recognizing that both are important to address the current mental health needs of the community.

According to the 2019 American College Health Association Report, issued prior to the pandemic, 3 out of 5 college students experienced extreme anxiety and 2 out of 5 experienced debilitating depression. Continuing impacts of institutionalized racism and the pandemic over the past two years have compounded these concerns.

At U-M, student groups, faculty, deans and student life leaders have advocated for increased resources, and the university has expanded funding for embedded and other counseling and mental health services. Alongside continuing investments, a holistic approach to student mental health and well-being is needed.

To further build the infrastructure needed to comprehensively address the health and wellness needs of the university community in a more strategic manner, U-M’s Student Mental Health Innovative Approaches Review Committee recently published a new report (PDF). It recommends how to strategically position resources to comprehensively meet the emerging needs of students, and how current resources can be improved, expanded, measured, assessed and communicated.

Plans are also in place to expand U-M’s current Student Life Health and Wellness Collective Impact infrastructure to be institution wide and include students, faculty and staff.

“We are working to advance a culture of well-being because we recognize the many benefits of doing so for our students, faculty and staff, and also for the larger community,” said Robert Ernst, associate vice president of student life for health and wellness, and executive director of University Health Service.

“We are working across the entire university to build an ecosystem that helps students develop as ‘whole people’ who are prepared to thrive in their personal and professional lives.”