How did the Mentally Healthy Campus Strategy and set of Legacy Tools come to be developed?

The Alberta Campus Mental Health Innovation (ACMHI) project is an example of the trajectory of an innovation initiative, as over the expected course of six years it will have moved from a ‘gleam in the eye’ to a provincial post secondary student mental health strategy. It began in 2012 with one member of the Alberta Student Executive Council (ASEC) engaging fellow members in recognizing and taking action on the existing and growing mental health challenges that students face in today’s post secondary institutions. The following year’s leaders carried on the effort, and ASEC successfully advocated for an innovation approach with funding from Alberta Health. The desire was to embark on a collective approach to improving students’ mental health and reducing stigma on member campuses.

What made this initiative an innovation?

Over and above any specific innovative projects that Student Leaders developed on their own campus, five characteristics made the ACMHI initiative as a whole very innovative.

  • Student Leader led. Student Leaders of member associations in ASEC conceived and implemented the initiative over the course of several years, to meet their collective and individual aims. On individual member campuses, the students’ association proposed and, where successful, implemented and managed their specific strategy.
  • Centred in the student experience and the students’ contribution to the whole. Student leaders, being students themselves, have a natural orientation to choose activities that would align with the student experience, and how students contribute to the whole of the mental health of the campus. The later development of the Student Journey Map formalized this principle and created a tool for students and others to orient their initiatives to the timing and type of experience. Being centred in the student experience also meant the realities of Indigenous and International Students were highlighted, in those member campuses with significant populations. So campuses like Northern Lakes College, Portage College could make aboriginal-based strategies a priority rather than a second thought, given the particular makeup of their student body. Bow Valley College and Norquest are natural champions for exploring what approaches are more effective for new Canadians – for example more than 57% of Norquest students were born out of Canada and there are 72 languages spoken on campus. The mix of institutions in ACMHI makes for a rich sharing of approaches and learnings among and between both larger and smaller campuses.
  • A collective approach. Using a collective approach offered the opportunity to innovate at the members’ individual campus level and at the collective level. This enabled a range of relatively small, medium and large post secondary institutions to benefit from individual and collective strategies. Collective strategies included the following:
    • Building on the existing ways of coming together through regular ASEC conferences. This enabled a higher degree than usual among individual campuses to share successes and local approaches while learning about and building on approaches that had been tested on other members’ campuses.
    • A common evaluation survey was implemented to provide a way to show both collective impact and inter-campus comparisons as well as changes from year to year.
    • Using ASEC as the financial agent provided a single connection with the funder.
    • The Collective aspect of the strategy was able to support the development of the Healthy Campus Alberta Community of Practice with University of Calgary, and host educational conferences such as the Wellness Conference in January 2016.
    • The Collective aspect was also able to make connections nationally and internationally that could share learnings and motivation.
  • Orienting the strategy around Mental Wellness, recognizing a holistic strategy has a balance of Wellness/ Life Assets strategies and Illness/Issue services. Student Leaders captured the essence of the broad definition of positive mental health for both individuals and groups – as being more than the absence of illness. Their approaches addressed emotional, cognitive, psychological and relational well being. Also, students took a broad brush to the idea of mental illness and mental issues, including addictions, sexual violence, marginalization and stigmatization of many groups, as well as suicide and clinical mental illness. While the students were not likely to take on the provision of professional services, they could use other types of strategies to reinforce or advocate for such services on their campus.
    • Further, Student Leaders chose a range of strategies that showed they understood the need for a taking balanced approach over time. The balance honored building students’ capabilities and life assets, and developing a normalized, positive and even enjoyable environment for talking about mental health issues, managing or relieving stress, and positive help seeking.
    • Students also recognized that their strategy portfolio was broader than doing everything themselves, and indeed success would only be achieved through collaboration of many organizations on campus and in the community. Where institutions did not have existing services for mental health issues, such as counseling, some developed innovative peer counseling or peer-support approaches. Student Leaders also advocated, within their own institutions and provincially, for a comprehensive post secondary mental health strategy.
  • A whole system approach. Student Leaders directed that the frame for the initiative be a Mentally Healthy Campus, and not simply mental health or mental illness of individuals. This systemic approach recognizes that many factors and many organizations’ actions influence individual’s and group’s mental wellness or mental health challenges. It also recognizes that students are both beneficiaries and contributors to the mental health of the campus, and can influence the social norms – helping shift from stigma to inclusion and belonging. The systemic approach also recognizes that sustainable impact comes from creating supportive environments and engaging both departments across their post secondary institutions and the many agencies that provide services associated with mental wellness and mental health issues.

Disruptive innovations illuminate what’s hard to see in the status quo

Another benefit of an innovation approach with uncommon leaders and a systemic learning process is that it can illuminate aspects of the prevailing worldview that directs the current thinking. This is helpful if a disruptive innovation is welcomed. The ACMHI initiative has illuminated the conventional model being based in a worldview that:

  • focuses on individuals;
  • focuses on students in their academic role rather than being recognized as whole persons with whole lives, in whole communities – and the strengths or challenges in all dimensions of their lives have a ripple or domino effect;
  • priorizes and orients the strategy around illness and issues– treating or preventing them, primarily with expert providers (whether in healthcare or human services);
  • focuses on direct service delivery approaches and not on creating momentum with shared action or other types of strategies;
  • pays limited attention to developmental trajectories of change;
  • systemic factors (e.g. determinants of health and illness are largely concerned only with their impact on the health or illness of the individual, and ignore the students as contributors to the whole. The enabling factors in the physical and digital environment, social environment and organizational / policy environments can be ignored or minimized.

Over the course of three years, 2013/14 to 2015/16, ASEC and ACMHI then implemented their innovation strategy, and demonstrated their ability to do so in a financially responsible manner. This also enabled them to raise awareness of the benefits to be gained from a comprehensive approach to mental health. The benefits extend to students and to institutions, as well as the expected benefit long term to society. The ASEC student leaders of 2015/16 continued the journey. Their advocacy to the provincial government during the third year promoted the need for a long term, provincial post secondary mental health strategy.

The ACMHI innovation strategy included individual and collective dimensions. First, the collective of ASEC, and their established ways of bringing members together four times over the course of the year, enabled individual campus student associations to share experiences, diffuse ideas on what worked and what did not, and participate in shared learning experiences. The common project management office enabled collective actions at the provincial level (among ASEC members and with provincial organizations) and provided project support.

At the individual campus level, student associations each developed a proposal for their campus mental health strategy, to be reviewed by an ACMHI external Approval Panel of people knowledgeable in areas such as mental illness treatment, post secondary institution health services, organizational development. Approved proposals were then implemented throughout the year and adapted with the agreement of the ACMHI project office. The campus SAs also broadened the circle at the local level, facilitating interaction between different departments and administration of the institution and sometimes engaging with local community agencies. Where most successful, this created a flywheel effect, which leveraged individual player’s actions and helped them build on each other’s strengths. They showed that the momentum created by this flywheel effect is a critical element of sustainability. Evaluation and Sustainability plans were part of the proposal. Students provided a final report of their experience and outcomes to the ACMHI office, which could then be synthesized into the overall story.

The original expectation was that the students’ projects would highlight useful strategies that could be carried on by either the institution or by community-based health and mental health agencies. However, many campuses demonstrated there were activities that students themselves were particularly well positioned to lead.

Student Associations did the innovations at the individual campus level – ACMHI provided the leadership for collective strategies.

At the collective project management level, ASEC and ACMHI undertook collective activities including:

  • managing the logistics of the funding to student associations and the operation of the Approval Panel.
  • facilitating the mental health sessions at ASEC conferences, and supporting the ASEC mental health committee teleconferences.
  • conducting a common survey to gather information on key outcomes and synthesizing the final reports from individual campuses into a single report to the funder Alberta Health.
  • expanding the circle of relationships with organizations involved with post secondary mental health both provincial and interprovincial. To do this, the project manager developed and sustained connections between related provincial associations and agencies like the College of Alberta University Students (CAUS) and CMHA.
  • working collaboratively with the University of Calgary to establish an Alberta Community of Practice to bring together students, professionals and administrators who share a commitment to improving mental health on campuses.
  • advocating collectively for increased attention to mental health and mental illness services on Alberta post secondary institutions. This was a key element of ASEC’s advocacy strategy. An additional opportunity for advocacy was presented when the provincial government instituted a Mental Health Review Panel, and the impact of advocacy could be recognized in the panel’s final set of recommendations for Valuing Mental Health.

They also maintained the communication with the funder as a part of the project accountability.

Successful innovation requires momentum and change at multiple levels of a system in order to change culture and worldview and maintain it over the long term. ACMHI’s strategy of collective and individual campus actions are an example of this. The balance between stability from the collective actions and the continuous revitalization due to the annual changeover of Student Leaders is another important characteristic of ACMHI.

ACMHI undertook a set of activities in its third and fourth year to develop a series of legacy resources from the innovation. One of these was to create a set of Legacy Tools in a web-based Toolkit for future Student Leaders, so they could ‘stand on the shoulders’ of their predecessors who had paved the way in the early stages of the innovation initiative. The Toolkit will be available on the ACMHI website with links to the Community of Practice website.  It will include instructions and worksheets for working with the four tools through each stage of a Student Leader’s term cycle. The tools are:

  • Student Journey Map
  • Mentally Healthy Campus Maturity Model
  • Evaluation and Learning Framework
  • Mentally Healthy Campus Strategy
  • Student Leader Term Cycle.