What is a Mentally Healthy Campus?

What is a Mentally Healthy Campus?

A post secondary campus is more than people – whether students, staff, faculty or administration – more than buildings, classrooms and the landscaping, although these are what we can see when we arrive on a campus. We can think of a post secondary campus as an organization – responsible for running programs to create educated people and improve our stock of knowledge through research papers.

Looked at as an organization, we might consider a mentally healthy campus as one where the leaders (Board of Governors, Senior Administration) are responsible for making sure that students have access to appropriate student services, including health and mental illness related services, and for assuring these are effective at improving students’ mental health. Because they are operating a workplace they are also responsible for faculty and staff’s health and safety. Students, faculty and staff are beneficiaries of those services.  The actions we take are guided by seeing the way all these systemic factors influence our focus – whether that be student mental health, or faculty and staff health.

However we get a different view by looking at a post secondary campus as a community.  Why?

  • Recognizing a campus as a community helps us to pay attention to the reality that a whole variety of elements work together to create and maintain the campus community’s culture. Looked at this way we see a different picture –
  • People, whether students, faculty or staff are both beneficiaries and contributors.
  • Physical buildings and layout are not just vehicles for holding classes, offices and research labs, but are factors that influence (or not) the health and safety of all the people in the campus community.
  • The digital environment influences everyone’s positive mentally health (or not).
  • The overall culture is one of inclusion and supporting behaviours that promote the belonging and wellbeing of all (rather than a culture that promotes or supports stigma and marginalization).
  • The way the organization runs either stewards the positive interaction of all these elements, or runs in a way that hampers or damages them.

This is a whole system approach, which understands that overall impact is created by the interactions of all its elements.

A mentally healthy campus community is one where all of its elements – people, environments and collective culture work together to promote the mental well-being of all of its members, the inclusiveness of its culture and the sustainability of the physical environment. 

It goes further. Seeing a campus as a community means seeing it not an island, but an important part of the community and region in which it is set. This includes the immediate community (e.g. Concordia University is set in the city of Edmonton, Alberta), as well as the larger region.  In these larger communities, multiple organizations are involved in providing services and supplies, including private sector businesses, nonprofit agencies, and various levels of government. Government policies influence programs and services, as well as labour agreements and the governance of public institutions.

A mentally healthy campus community both contributes to, and benefits from mentally healthy communities and regions in which it is located. 

Student Leaders in ASEC member institutions identified factors and resources associated with a mentally healthy campus community, and these formed four major groupings. These have been arranged in four quadrants that are all influencing each other, as illustrated in the diagram below:

  • Persons as individuals (and services directed at individuals);
  • Groups (social environment), Built and Natural Environment (and services directed at these elements);
  • Organizations;
  • Inter-organization and Inter-professional working relationships, collaborations.

The campus community is shown as nested within a community context, with the resulting inter-relationships.


Why is it valuable to take a whole system view, a mentally healthy campus view, even if you are most concerned about improving students’ experience?

It is valuable because it is helpful to remember that everyone is both a contributor and a beneficiary – all elements of a campus community influence each other.  Also, there are many factors that influence an individual’s experience, and taking a mentally healthy campus view helps to include the range of influences. Of course a student, faculty member or staff member is also influenced by factors in their family and friends, as well as by the community at large. But we will start with this part of the whole puzzle.

Why would a post secondary institution care about being a Mentally Healthy Campus?  The reasons include:

  1. Students who have and are improving their mental health skills have better academic success. Those who are getting appropriate treatment for mental illnesses or issues are also able to succeed academically.
  2. Employers are looking for employees who have not only work-related knowledge and skills, but also ‘soft skills’ or ‘enabling skills’. These include competencies within the positive mental health realm – including emotional competencies, cognitive competencies such as problem solving and cognitive complexity skills, and social or relational competencies that are increasingly critical to success in today’s and future work environment.
  3. PSE Institutions are developing citizens, not just workers. The value of increasing students’ mental health skills goes beyond their role and experience on campus. It extends across all their lives. Thus, the ACMHI initiative for improving students’ mental health and reducing stigma is important not only for the student’s time and experience on campus, but acknowledges that post secondary education is an important developmental period in a person’s life. Building self-awareness and self-development skills, knowledge and beliefs actually builds life assets that will serve the person throughout his or her life, whether in career, family or the community at large.
  4. The post secondary institution is an employer, and mental healthy faculty, staff and administration helps it be more effective and efficient, as well as providing a mentally healthy social environment for students.

How does this understanding influence the actions we take to improve mental health, inclusion and belonging as well as address mental illness, and stigma?

Actions that are important to improving a mentally healthy campus community certainly include those aimed at helping individuals and groups (students, faculty, staff and leadership) to be more and more mentally healthy, and able to prevent or cope with mental health issues as individuals. But they also include actions that attempt to influence the other elements of the campus community, or the wider community in which it lives.  Actions can be direct – doing type actions, or can be a range of other types of strategies, such as advocating, funding, modeling.

By taking a whole system approach, and taking action on all the other elements of a mentally healthy campus, planners can make sure their strategy both influences the wide range of factors that influence people’s mental health AND helps those elements to influence each other. This creates a momentum; a movement that is self-reinforcing and can magnify the impact. So even if you’re primarily concerned with students’ mental health, you might want to use a whole system approach since the mental health of faculty and staff will be important factors in students’ mental health.  If you’re concerned with the mental health of everyone – students, faculty and staff, and of the sustainability of the physical environment, you’ll want to use the whole system approach.

The document (Outcomes) provides more details on the possible actions we can take. This includes some examples of the types of activities that might be used in each quadrant.

References for systemic or whole system approaches to a Mentally Healthy Campus

Some references provide more background on why a systemic approach is important, and more information on the developmental approach, for those who wish to look more deeply. Note that some describe a systemic approach and others describe a whole system approach.

The report appendix provides an overview of the following systemic models:

  • The Campus Population Health Promotion Model (Patterson and Kline, 2008)
  • The Suicide Prevention Resource Centre (SPRC)
  • The NASPA (Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education) Ecological approach / model (NASPA, 2010)
  • The UK Healthy Universities Model (UK Healthy Universities).
  • CACUSS Post-Secondary Student Mental Health: Guide to a Systemic Approach. Accessed April 2016 from http://www.cacuss.ca/_Library/PSSMH/PSSMH_GuideToSystemicApproach_CACUSS-CMHA_2013.pdf

Related information is in the document Understanding mental health, mental illness, mental health issues and stigma.