Where Should Student Leaders Focus?
Every campus is different, and student leaders need to consider:
- the needs of their student body,
- the context and culture of their institution,
- the previous and ongoing work that they can build on to keep the flywheel spinning.
Start with describing your campus, and then consider the story that you would like to tell over the year. How will your work foster a mentally healthy campus? This overall story then gives you guidance as you consider specific activities like those described below.
After selecting specific activities, come back to your big picture story—how do the activities connect to each other and to this larger narrative?
The following areas play to the strengths of students as change agents.
From Prevention and Promotion to Building Life Assets and creating Movements for cultural change.
Students usually leave treatment and risk reduction services to the institution to deliver, but are especially effective at prevention and promotion, and creating movements for cultural change to increase inclusion and decrease stigma. Students can also be a valuable partner in collective crisis response strategies because they can leverage their networks or trusted spaces for courageous conversations.
Students also recognize their life extends beyond their academic life and beyond the campus, and can see the benefits of moving beyond prevention and promotion activities, to building life assets that will serve them throughout their life.
What are life assets?
Life assets are the skills and attitudes a person uses to navigate their life – both at school and professionally as well as personally. Both the knowledge and problem solving skills you gain during post secondary education, as well as the degree or certificate itself will be assets. Students have a stock of life assets they have developed through their experiences before coming to post secondary education. If those are positive assets, they can provide a starting point to help the student to cope with the high pressure environment of post secondary education. Strengthening them further during post secondary years, in response to the stress of increasing challenges will build even more to help you navigate challenges through your life at work, at home, at play and as an engaged citizen.
Not everyone is the same, and not everyone reacts the same way to stress or finds the same things effective for coping with stress. So the most effective ways of coping and prevention are different for everyone. Building on assets you already have, and strengthening those practices that work for you, are important as you learn to cope with the stresses of school and life. For more seasoned students, the time in post secondary can help reset habits and attitudes that support resilience and improve life assets.
The activities used for short-term coping and stress management are also ones that help you build life assets, if combined with mindfulness and reflection. Things like eating nutritious food, getting enough sleep, exercise, building friendships are important for brain development, which pays off throughout life. Stress management strategies such as yoga, mindfulness practices, cultural practices, and even stress relief strategies such as puppy days, short action breaks, laughing or colouring can help. The key is learning which stresses, at what times, are particularly challenging to you and what types of activities work best for you. Possibly most important is coming to understand that, however calm and in control others might look, that you’re not alone in having concerns and anxieties and it can help to talk with friends or seek more professional support.
Students can develop, strengthen, and model their competencies -both skills and attitudes – by learning what works for them, and building those into life patterns. Students can also consider activities that can teach these to others. This can be both formally and through encouraging this development as a part of other activities as well as in cooperation with partners.
Recognizing these competencies as critical life assets takes the conversation outside the realm of health and illness. Increasingly, employers are demanding such competencies – and they are certainly critical for entrepreneurs. These include important emotional, psychological, cognitive, and relational (social) competencies, and understanding how brain development supports these. (See “Framing mental health, mental illness and mental health issues, stigma and Life Assets within a Mentally Healthy Campus approach” for more detail)
Stigma and Culture
Overcoming the stigma of mental illness, and addressing mental health as an everyday need for everyone, requires a shift in culture. It is not just a onetime event. Consistent initiatives that encourage honesty, transparency, support, safety, non-judgment, peer acceptance, humor, kindness, and other positive cultural characteristics can set norms and expectations for campus. Progressing from shame and silence to everyday acceptance is especially suited to the kind of incremental, consistent, ongoing efforts that characterize the flywheel for mentally healthy campuses.
Relationships and Catalysts
Student leaders multiply their impact when they act as catalysts. By building relationships and bringing people together from various partners, students can help the overall campus community work more effectively. This can be as simple as getting to know who is working in mental health, and then coordinating awareness of individual organizations’ activities so that they can build on each other’s work.
Merging and Managing Collaboration
One outcome for building relationships and convening different collaborators is the opportunity to merge efforts, reduce duplication, and ensure that different contributions from all the players, on campus and across the community, take advantage of everyone’s work and maximize the potential of each initiative.
Capacity and Continuity
Student leaders typically have the opportunity to work for one or two years, so the long-term impact of their dedication is felt long after they have served. This impact is maximized when they build on their predecessors’ momentum, and ensure strong continuity during the transition to their successors. This continuity includes a planned transition period and time to build capacity in the Student Association and the larger campus community.
Student leaders can ensure that their legacy will continue and grow. They do this by building capability and capacity in their own Student Associations and with their partners so that there is a strong ongoing focus on mental health priorities.