4. A person is not an island but an ecology

Many fields are focused on individuals, and the primacy of the individual is a characteristic of western society, so it is not surprising that the focus of many health or illness-oriented strategies is on the individual. And some professional fields use the term ‘health’ to refer only to a person’s internal states. When the environment is included (as in the ‘determinants of health’), the environmental factors are considered as impacting on the person – so continue the idea of a separation.

Some professional fields assume a more interactive relationship between a person and their environment (community social work, structural psychology, human ecology, architecture are some examples). Advances in neuroscience are helping to increase our understanding of how deeply the interaction with one’s environment influences development of brain pathways (which in turn are the basis for the changes in a person’s internal state).

So it is important to recognize this toolkit’s acceptance of an ecological view, that not only recognizes the relevance of the environment but that an individual BOTH is influenced by AND influences their environments.

This is represented by the dotted lines and the double headed arrow in the visual representation the ecological view.

The ecological view is different than the dominant, modernist worldview, which informs the conventional design of most programs, services and organizations. This is a worldview that embeds specialization, the material or tangible aspects, and centralized top down coordination and control.

Accepting that positive mental health includes interacting within and with one’s environments means paying attention to the characteristics of students’ various environments –home, family and close networks as well as work, school and community environments.

  • There are multiple dimensions to ‘environment’ – including the natural environment, built environment, and characteristics of the social environment – whether inclusive, open to new thinking etc. Another dimension not always identified is the informational environment. We can focus on the technology, but the key is the quality and extent of information we use for decisions, and the ability to develop relationships apart from geography that the technology enables.
  • We may be most aware of our micro-environment, which includes our close networks of friends and family, housing, workplace unit, and communities of interest. However, we also interact with our meso- and macro-environments, which include organizations, wider community and society. One’s built and natural environment, as well as the informational environment and social environment are part of positive functioning because a person is not isolated.

Taking an ecological view has two influences on strategies that are aimed at improving positive mental health:

  • To be most impactful, a strategy needs to be multi-dimensional. That is, it needs to include actions not only aimed at the individual, but also those aimed at improving health-enabling environments. While the student’s micro-environment may be most obvious, interventions aimed at the meso- or macro- environments are also important. So the toolkit includes reference to improving health-enabling environments as a key part of health promoting strategies.
  • Since a person influences their environments, intervention strategies need to support them in understanding how to influence their environments, and the qualities of the environments that influence them. This could include for example, helping students understand their zone of influence, where they are in control of what they do and say, and also support them in building capabilities for influencing their environments, either individually or by working in a coalition. (i.e. growing one’s positive mental health is about building capability for self, others and the environments)

Paying attention to the need for multi-dimensional strategies is easier when the overall strategy has been framed as a mentally healthy campus and community strategy helps to highlight the importance of both individual and collective strategies, including the characteristics of mental-health supporting organizations.