CACUSS Systematic Approach

What is the CACUSS Systemic Approach?

The Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS)’s Systemic Approach to campus mental health was developed in collaboration with Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). It focuses on creating campus communities that foster mental well being and learning and it encompasses four key principles:

  1. It is comprehensive, and views the whole campus as the domain to be addressed and as responsible for enhancing and maintaining the mental health of community members; extends the focus beyond the individual and strategies such as treatment, skill building and awareness to the whole campus including its environment, organizational structure, policies and practices.
  2. Creates environmental conditions for the flourishing of all students that are grounded in values of social equity and sustainability; supports integrated development and capacity building; provides targeted programs for students who would benefit from assistance; and provides specialized services for students experiencing mental health issues.
  3. Is student–directed, grounded in values of informed choice and inclusion of students’ voices in strategy development and decision-making, especially of students with lived experiences of mental health issues.
  4. Involves all stakeholders in a collective, shared responsibility for creating campus environmental conditions that support student learning and mental health.

The CACUSS Systemic Approach utilizes the following conceptual framework which illustrates seven broad areas involved in implementing this approach for postsecondary student mental health:

SOURCE: Canadian Association of College & University Student Services and Canadian Mental Health Association. (2013). Post-Secondary Student Mental Health: Guide to a Systemic Approach. Vancouver, BC: Author.

Who uses this approach?

A systemic approach includes individual-level interventions (such as promoting coping strategies, mental health awareness, treatment, training, and skill-building), but also entails more structural interventions to affect upstream determinants of mental well being such as institutional structure, campus environment, organizational structure, policies and practices. Therefore, it is intended to be used by campus administrators and decision makers, as well as practitioners across all departments on a campus.

What models exist on Ontario campuses?

The majority of policies developed to date in Canada assume a more individual approach to supporting student mental health. However, several Canadian universities are considering or developing a mainstreamed systemic approach. For example in Ontario, Queens, OCAD and Ryerson Universities are three institutions who are currently considering developing a policy review that would mainstream a mental health or wellness lens into institutional policy.

Ryerson and OCAD completed a joint Mental Health Innovation Fund project entitled “A Campus Wide, Evidenced-based Approach to Addressing Postsecondary Student Mental Health.” This approach utilizes the CACUSS framework.

Queen’s University established a Principal’s Commission on Mental Health to review policy and processes with a mental health lens. In November 2012, the commission released a report with recommended policy changes (e.g., Withdrawal and readmission policies; policy pertaining to false academic starts). Read full report here.

The University of Toronto has recognized the need for, and pledged its commitment to, a “systems approach” of promoting mental wellness. Their strategy outlined in the Report of the Provostial Advisory Committee on Student Mental Health uses the CACUSS framework and a  “mental health continuum” to acknowledge all students and their varying needs, from difficulties with stress-management to “crisis” states. It also commits to the fostering of a pervasive mental-wellness culture, which would increase awareness of mental health issues for faculty, staff, and students alike.

Similarly to Ryerson and Queens, the University of British Columbia is currently reviewing their policies and developing a strategy to align all policies and practices to support student learning and wellbeing. Read UBC’s holistic and student-centered mental health framework, here.

Also, the University of Victoria has developed a Student Mental Health Strategy that provides a framework for the Division of Student Affairs and the broader university community to comprehensively and proactively review resources and opportunities for mental health promotion, planning, and responsiveness in support of our student community. Their strategy is intended as a framework for the development and implementation of action plans to support positive student mental health and well-being in order to enhance all students’ potential for success. Read their framework, here.

Benefits and challenges


  • Shift in focus from treating individuals to promoting positive mental health at a community and population level.
  • Establish broader institutional processes, rules and structures that support all students in thriving academically and emotionally.
  • Tend to be more proactive and can prevent mental health crises from surfacing.


  • Involves multiple system players and sometimes difficult to coordinate.
  • The breadth of policy recommendations under a systemic approach is a lot of work.
  • During the planning and implementation stages, additional staff may be required.
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