Talking leadership 11: Santa Ono on the mental health crisis
Seven years ago, when Santa Ono was president of the University of Cincinnati, a student committed suicide. Ono was urged to “come out” as a companion with mental health issues and shocked the community by describing his own two suicide attempts.
Now, as president and vice-chancellor of the University of British Columbia (UBC), he has made mental health a top concern. In the 11and in our Talking Leadership series, Ono discusses the structural causes of poor mental health in higher education, criticizes universities for not collecting data on sexual assault on campus, and claims that some people do better not discuss their mental health issues.
Improving the supply of mental health care
When he became president of UBC, Ono – who comes across as a benevolent uncle no one would want to disappoint – doubled the mental health budget.
He appointed a chief student health officer, a person who had previously worked at Canada’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to oversee all aspects of students’ emotional and physical well-being. Their goal is to “advocate for students, really put themselves in their shoes, and see what it’s like to need mental health support,” Ono says.
Identifying that the traditional counseling delivery model – housed in the Student Services building or local hospital and open 9-5 on weekdays – was not working because “often students need help at 2 a.m. morning on Saturday or Sunday”, they installed trained counselors to live in student accommodation.
“They can actually detect changes in student behavior, things like whether they wake up, go to class, go to meals on time,” Ono says. “It’s kind of an early warning system in residences so we can provide mental health support 24/7.”
At the top of his list of tactics to improve mental health is data collection. This is essential for refining mental health services and for tackling one of the most insidious causes of mental health problems at university: sexual assault.
Ono is scathing about institutions that don’t collect sexual assault data.
“In many universities, data collection mechanisms are not sufficient. In some cases, systems are broken. In some cases, the data is not even collected.
A look of anguish crosses his face as he explains that some think the data showing increased use of services looks bad for the university.
“It’s really moved,” he said. “We want to identify these situations and we want to support these people. And we want to identify these perpetrators, and we don’t want them in our university.
UBC’s sexual assault policies have evolved over several years, Ono says, and are regularly refined based on investigations. “It’s not always a pretty picture,” he says.
“In these very traumatic situations, we are aware of the harm that an institution can create by not interacting with the victim in a sensitive and empathetic way,” he adds.
In a powerful TedX talk filmed in 2017 and now viewed tens of thousands of times, Ono explains why he attempted suicide at age 14.
With a father who is a math teacher and two talented brothers, “here is this rather ordinary guy flanked by two amazing child prodigies. And I felt totally inadequate and someone who was not really worthy of being a member of this august family.
“I think my parents were pretty ashamed of me,” he says.
His second attempt came in his late twenties while an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University; he was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated with medication and psychotherapy.
“For years, unbeknownst to my president, the dean, the president of Johns Hopkins, I worked to try to fight the demons inside of me.”
With his two suicide attempts linked to academic pressure, does he think there is something inherent in education, something even structural, that needs to change?
When it comes to students, he thinks not. Universities welcome students in a “tremendous period of transition” when their first experiences of failure are met with estrangement from their usual support networks.
But what about academics? Those on the cusp of a career as a teacher (as Ono was), desperate to build a strong career foundation, are known to suffer from poor mental health. Can anything be done about the ever-present pressure bubbling beneath the surface of college life?
At UBC, there’s a program called Thrive, Ono says, that aims to counter this by providing socialization opportunities for scholars. But is it possible that this type of program just adds another item to the to-do list, along with the endless demands of publishing articles, winning grants, getting contracts, and teaching? Isn’t work-life balance the problem to be solved?
Indeed, Ono attributed his own stable well-being in part to an improvement in this area.
“It’s very difficult” to tackle this particular demon, he concedes. As president, all he can do is try to set the tone.
“What happens in the life of a young faculty member usually happens within a unit or department within a faculty or college… these kinds of changes [for the better] happen gradually and episodically and in some departments and not in others,” he says. “But the most important thing for a vice-chancellor is just to talk about it.”
Ono says he has also found balance in his own mental health through self-acceptance.
“I accepted my feeling of inadequacy. By comparing myself to, you know, people who are exceptional in different things, I came to realize that I had other strings, I had other abilities.
A pitfall that universities frequently fall into is not recognizing the value of all their staff. It takes a lot to keep college life flowing, Ono says, but a lot goes unrecognized.
“It doesn’t work if you only celebrate the Nobel-class scientist without acknowledging the great teacher and without acknowledging those who serve the institution… This can be the root cause of a lot of stress and challenges for academic staff. “
Since his own revelations, the discussion of mental health has become more mainstream, but there are still some who see it as a weakness. For those, Ono has “very little patience”.
But it may be the very people who employ his students. Does he fear that his students will be penalized by their future bosses for being honest about mental health?
The short answer is yes. “If you’re at the start of your career, it’s risky. It’s not easy to talk about his challenges, I wouldn’t even recommend him,” he says. “You have to be careful. And you have to think about who you’re going to reach out to.
Not: Vancouver, 1962
Academic Qualifications: BA in Biological Sciences from the University of Chicago; PhD in Experimental Medicine from McGill University
Lives with: His wife, youngest daughter and dog. Her eldest daughter is in college.
Academic Hero: As researcher, Rosalind Franklin. As administrator, Sir Malcolm Grant, president of UCL when Ono worked there.
This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with leaders from the world’s top universities on how they solve common strategic problems and implement change. Follow the series here.
If you are having suicidal thoughts or feel you need to talk to someone there is a free 24 hour helpline in the UK on 116123 or you can email [email protected] samaritans.org. In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the Lifeline crisis helpline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.