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Noorjean Hassam smiling while engaging in conversation with a woman with long black hair
November 6, 2023
4 mins read

The state of student health at UBC: a Q & A with Noorjean Hassam

November on campus: classes are in high gear, the start of term buzz has faded, and midterms are underway. 

November also typically marks the beginning of the west coast’s notoriously long and dreary rainy season. It can all be a bit of a perfect storm for students’ mental health, and it’s usually when Noorjean Hassam and her team start to see the number of students seeking mental health support jump. 

Noorjean joined UBC as its first Associate Vice President of Health & Wellbeing in May 2021. TL;DR: it’s her job to oversee health and wellbeing at UBC—no small task.

We caught up with Noorjean to discuss all things health at UBC and had a candid conversation about what an AVP, Student Health and Wellbeing actually does, what she sees UBC students struggling with the most, and what advice she would offer herself as an undergrad with the perspective she has now. 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. 

In a nutshell, what does an AVP of Student Health and Wellbeing do? 

I think the most important thing about this AVP role is that it's a creative role, because it didn't exist before. There isn't a script that says what this job is; I had to sort out what it is. 

When I came here, Student Health Services (SHS), Counselling Services, and Health Promotion and Education (HPE) were all supporting students separately. My mandate, in part, has been to bring those teams together to provide more integrated health and mental health support and services to students. When I got this job, I had to figure out what that meant. How do I bring people who are already doing good work into a place where they now might want to work a little bit differently? What will that look like? 

One of the big milestones we’re working towards is our move into the Gateway Health Building next year, which will give us the opportunity to come together physically in support of a truly integrated service model. When we move to Gateway, we will no longer be operating as 3 separate units, we will be one unit: Student Health and Wellbeing. Students will be able to move more seamlessly back and forth between the services and programs based on their needs at the time. 

What’s the biggest health challenge that you see students dealing with right now?

Mental health is our number one concern for sure. Most people come to Counselling Services for that, but we're also finding that many of our appointments with health care providers in Student Health Services are for the same thing. 

This is to be expected—coming into the post secondary years of your life is very exciting, and it’s a stressful thing. We don't ever want to get to the place where nobody has any stress, because a certain amount of stress is helpful to grow, learn, and achieve what you want in your life. 

It’s all about managing stress and anxiety, so that it's not overtaking your life. There are so many things students can do to support themselves to not get to that place. And with our services, that’s ultimately what happens, whether you come to Counselling or Student Health Services with those concerns: we guide you toward coping strategies. In most cases it's not a pill we want to give people for stress and anxiety, it's the tools and skills to cope and manage when those issues come up. 

Noorjean Hassam sitting on a green and grey sofa while engaging in conversation

If you could go back in time, what health advice would you give your undergraduate self?

I think what was missing for me was that the deep understanding of how much was in my control. I was super shy so when I would see those posters promoting clubs and programs, my feeling was ‘that's for somebody else’—that's for ‘those kids.’ But I didn't understand that, no, actually all of this is for all of us. And I just needed to take that step into joining, and initiate those connections. Those connections are your health promotion activities.

I was reading an article in The New York Times and it said that it's not just about belonging and inclusion. It's about ‘mattering’. I love that. I did eventually make friends and I did feel like I mattered to people. But I could have done a lot more, a lot sooner. 

Your time as a student isn't the time in your life to just put your head down and study; it's a time to connect and grow, and build that sense of who you are, and that sense of broader community. And those are all protective factors for your mental and physical health—and for getting the most out of your academics and university experience. 

So my health advice has nothing to do with eating better. It's really about social connection and belonging—having that confidence to just reach out a little because when you do, there's a lot of people reaching back. 

What’s some of the common feedback you’ve gotten from students, and how is Student Health and Wellbeing responding?

Students have been talking about wanting to receive clear information about our services. They want seamless transfer between services, they want to be able to understand our services and programs better. They want them to be more culturally safe and relevant; they want us to have a decolonizing lens to our services. We take that feedback from students very seriously and I don’t think I could tell you in an hour, all the things we’re doing to address it.

What's beautiful is we were just in a meeting—when I say we, I'm talking about the entire Student Health and Wellbeing team—where literally everybody was putting pen to paper to figure out how to do these things. So all of the doctors, counsellors, health promotion specialists and everyone else sat together today to ask things like, what do we do at a systems level? What do we do at a team level? At the individual level, what are each of us going to do? How can we address students’ dreams about what Student Health and Wellbeing services could be like? 

There’s still a lot of work to do, but I’m so excited about the progress we have made so far. The number of things that that team has done and is planning to do in the next two years is overwhelming. 

UBC has a wealth of health services and resources available to support students throughout their academic careers. If you are looking for mental health support, make an appointment with a Wellness Advisor to get started. 

Student Health and Wellbeing has a student advisory committee that works directly with the SHW leadership team. To share your thoughts or ask questions about health and wellbeing services at UBC, you can contact the SHW Student Advisory Committee (shw.sac@ubc.ca).