Supporting Mental Health and Wellness

Does your school make the grade?

Jeff Thompson

Reprinted from "Campuses" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (3), p. 4-5

The topic of goals and grades often comes to mind when we think of school. Usually it’s the school that assigns the grades. But maybe it’s time the tables were turned.

What if post-secondary institutions had to learn how to support the mental health and healthy substance use of its students? And what if they were graded on what they’ve learned?

As you’ll find out in this issue of Visions, colleges are seeing alarming rates of psychological distress and dangerous levels of substance use in students.

In the growing competition for students, some institutions have realized that promoting wellness, balance and a sense of belonging and care can serve to attract students and the support of parents. Many colleges* have developed exciting, well-informed programs aimed at improving student mental health and promoting safer substance use.

But there are still some colleges that haven’t made these realizations and don’t have these important, health-promoting programs. Some institutions are actually cutting back on counselling and wellness programs.

Let’s imagine there is a course that educates schools about handling mental health and substance use problems? Who would offer such a course? How would it be graded? What prerequisites would a school need to be ready to take this course?

‘Course’ prerequisites

Before any institution ‘signs up’ for a course on addressing mental health and substance use in a meaningful way, they would need to have these two prerequisites: Recognition and Expectation.

Recognition 101

To address mental health and substance use problems on campus, colleges must first recognize that these problems exist and that they have some responsibility to find solutions.

Stubborn attitudes still persist when it comes to acknowledging the tremendous impact and responsibility institutions have in this regard. Beliefs like “Institutions serve proudly as a gauntlet, allowing the strong to succeed” or “I don’t think it’s worse now than when I went to school, and I survived” or “It’s really not our job to care for students; we are in the business of providing education” continue to linger in the structure of institutions. These beliefs, whether openly said or quietly implied, can prevent schools from making much needed changes.

The society we want reflected by our learned institutions is, hopefully, marked by compassion, respect and a sense of belonging—as opposed to fear and a competitive “survivor” attitude. The individuals who say they “survived” educational institutions can usually point to others who were not so fortunate. And, suggesting institutions are only responsible to provide education seems irresponsible, since people (often aged 18 and younger) are not robots and many institutions mention bettering humankind as part of their mission.

Unfortunately, it often takes a seriously negative event for people to take notice. In many cases, it has taken suicides or school shootings to provoke change and active caring about students’ and staff welfare. However, just like we don’t need to have a heart attack before adopting action to reduce stress, improve diet and increase exercise, colleges don’t have to wait for tragedy and lawsuits before acting to better support student mental health.

Expectation 102

When we set personal goals to change behaviour, having hope or expectation for bettering ourselves is a powerful ingredient for change. The same can be said for colleges needing change.

There is a large and growing body of research suggesting that change for the better is possible for post-secondary institutions. After following plans of action based on research, colleges such as New York University and Harvard reported reductions in suicide rates and problems related to substance use.1-2

Once colleges learn to expect that they can impact the mental health and substance use behaviour of their students, then real change can be made.

Toward Student Wellness 101

So, if post-secondary institutions are ready to sign up for a ‘course’ in bettering student mental health, who will set the ‘curriculum’? Who will ‘teach’ it?

As you’ll find out in this issue of Visions, many colleges are already taking advantage of various resources available to them, including college mental health conferences, academic research, in-house expertise and other initiatives such as the BC Campus Project.

But more is needed. Faculty and staff need to know how to deal with mental health crises and emergencies. Students and staff need be armed with knowledge of how to better their mental health and relationships with substance use. Perhaps innovative and engaging teams will emerge from grassroots efforts to share information.

How can institutions be ‘graded’?

Schools need to be accountable for how well they address mental health and substance use on campus. So, how can they be graded?

  • Students can feed back how well they feel their school is doing. Hopefully, when it comes time to submit grades, they haven’t just walked through a corridor where they were bombarded by beer and casino advertisements, stressed with an unreasonable workload from a condescending, overworked professor working in an under-funded system!

  • A cross-section of community members can be involved in evaluating schools’ success in addressing these issues.

  • The media can hold them accountable. Grading colleges on how they handle mental health and substance use has yet to appear explicitly in Maclean’s annual review of Canadian universities—but why not?

Getting there

Post-secondary institutions are wonderfully situated to positively impact how people learn to be cared for, care for themselves and care for others. Coping skills and world view can be greatly influenced during post-secondary education. Much can be accomplished when:

  • there is strong support from students, family, school presidents, staff, faculty and community members

  • research is reviewed and incorporated

  • policies are rewritten and implemented

  • committees with relevant stakeholders (including community members) address “wellness” initiatives

  • students are listened to!

As schools begin to experience greater emphasis on wellness, I believe academic and quality of life benefits will emerge. As more schools risk investing in change, I expect the movement toward more caring campus communities will gain momentum. I hope this issue of Visions inspires all our institutions to aim for an ‘A’ in modelling wellness, compassion and creative and effective solutions.

 
About the author

Jeff works in Vancouver as a clinical supervisor with Watari Research Association. Previously, he coordinated the BC Campus Project for two years. Jeff has been a group therapist for 15 years and is certified in psychodrama by the American Board of Examiners in Psychodrama, Sociometry and Group Psychothe

Footnotes:
  1. Ragouzeos, Z. (2007, January). ‘The Reality Show: NYU’: Promoting mental health services at New York University. Paper presented at the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators’ Mental Health Conference, Houston, TX.

  2. Weitzman, E.R., Nelson, T.F., Lee, H., et al. (2004). Reducing drinking and related harms in college: Evaluation of the “A Matter of Degree” program. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 27(3), 187-196. www.hsph.harvard.edu/cas/Documents/amod.

 

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