Recognizing Positive Mental Health as a Pre-Condition for Learning

yellow friendship bench

Today — January 25, 2017 — is “Let’s Talk” day.  Consistent with the program’s commitment to breaking the silence about mental illness in Ontario, I thought it timely to blog about wellbeing.

This is an issue I care deeply about.  Across my various identities – parent, partner, educator, community volunteer, advocate, leader – the importance of focusing on physical and mental health is increasingly clear.  In that spirit of holistic wellness, I’ve come to embrace the word ‘flourishing’, which Frederickson (2009) defines as “feeling satisfied with your life and also functioning well in it”. Each of us must self-assess satisfaction.  She suggested, however, that the way to measure functioning is to assess whether a person is “learning, growing, and making contributions to society.” This definition aligns nicely with how I view my role as a developmentally-focused educator.    

I champion the transformative power of post-secondary education (PSE); done right, it delivers inarguable personal and social returns on investment.  The literature on this is clear:  even after accounting for confounding influences like race, gender, parental income, and prior health status, PSE has a positive impact on values, attitudes and quality of life.  Evidence further suggests that these benefits extend beyond the individual graduate to their kids.  What does that mean in practical terms?  Graduates score more highly on assessments of tolerance, are less likely to commit crime, and are more likely to vote, volunteer and participate in public debate.  They demonstrate a greater propensity to trust and tolerate others, are less likely to engage in unhealthy behaviours and more likely to engage in preventative care.  If you, like me, believe that PSE changes individuals, families, communities and the planet … you must, by extension, be invested in helping students flourish.  Quite simply, positive mental health is a pre-condition for learning.

People ask me what keeps me up at night.  One thing that always comes to mind is data collected via the National College Health Assessment (NCHA).   This tool is widely administered across the post-secondary system in Canada and the United States.  Although Sheridan didn’t participate in 2016, I think it’s reasonable to assume that the NCHA Ontario reference group data accurately reflects our students’ lived experiences. At the risk of keeping you up at night too, here’s a snapshot of what the data is telling us:  within the previous month, 46% felt so depressed it was difficult to function; 65% had experienced overwhelming anxiety; 13% had seriously considered suicide; and, a shocking 11% had attempted suicide.

As a parent, educator, and leader in the system … I find this heartbreaking.

Without question, it provides the impetus for actively fostering a mentally healthy campus where policies, practices, programs and the leadership cultivate and live a culture of compassion. Advancing that vision is fundamental to our work as administrators, faculty members, staff, student service professionals, reflective practitioners, and good citizens.

What is the path to a campus where students and staff are flourishing, not floundering? I’m particularly invested in a 2008 model from the UK-based New Economics Foundation called 5 Ways to Wellbeing.  Take a look and let me know if these ‘steps’ resonate as a way to foster positive mental health for you personally, and the Sheridan community – students, faculty and staff – more broadly:  connect, be active, take notice, learn, and give.  And … let’s keep talking.