2. The expression of Positive mental health is personal and unique to the individual

This assumption follows from the first, and is what makes it so hard for people to imagine having a positive mental health focus to services and programs. So the toolkit addresses the seeming paradox of a person experiencing strategies for their personal and unique perspective with the parallel need to have organizations that can plan and organize consistent and reliable services in an efficient and effective way. This toolkit takes that as a ‘design requirement’.

Why is each person’s positive health personal and unique? Three main reasons:

Positive mental health is made up of multiple dimensions or strands

Positive mental health has many strands, including biological and other physical facets, cognitive, emotional, psychological, creative, social and relational, spiritual, as well as the individual’s interaction with their environment — Brain development involves all of these, as well as contributing to them. Developing positive mental health thus involves developing multiple facets, including brain development and a person’s ecologies.

Different individuals will emphasize some of these over others. These strands influence each other – weaving together and with various strands of the person’s ecosystem. Positive health is not simply about internal factors (e.g. biology, genes), but about the person’s interaction with their environment, their agency and capacity to interact with their environment in ways that work for them.

Brain development starts in the pre-natal period, influenced by environment (including inter-generational influences). As one moves along their life journey, developing self-awareness, learning from experience, and interactions with others and the environment all influence a person’s brain development, and thus biological, psychological and moral strands. Developing positive mental health involves developing multiple strands, which then interact in different ways.

Positive mental health is dynamic, a process, a journey that never ends

Positive mental health isn’t so much a state to be achieved or lost, but a process that plays out over a moment, a day, a week, a lifetime. In fact, feeling stable is a result of dynamic equilibrium or dynamic balance – as when a skateboarder appears balanced, or stable, but in reality is in a state of constant change where positive reactions balance negative reactions.

A student’s positive mental health journey is a segment of their life journey, as described in Building and Strengthening one’s positive mental health is a life journey. This means they enter the stage of being a student with the capabilities they’ve developed through life to that point, and programs and strategies must recognize the diversity of capabilities that have been built and strengthened through students’ previous life stages.

A student has many micro-journeys, as expressed in one’s psychobiology. The micro-journey of stimulus and response is repeated over and over again, with patterns of response first building brain pathways and then reinforcing them. Supporting a student to recognize, interrupt and gradually build alternative responses is one important concern of health-promoting strategies.

These two journeys help to highlight why those supporting students during their time at post-secondary can recognize they are influencing a students’ future life as well – their experiences, and the capacities they build related to their positive mental health as a student will build or weaken capabilities for their next stages of life.

Positive mental health has a gradient or spectrum – “life is a set of developmental journeys with many ingredients”

Positive mental health is like a set of muscles – which can be developed over time to be stronger, work together better, or be overwhelmed and become weaker. One researcher describes the gradient as languishing to a peak of flourishing, with moderate in the middle. Another way of describing the gradient is “surviving through coping to thriving”. This is a developmental journey as experiences build on what has been created before and the multiple strands described in the previous section influence each other – so the impacts of experience cannot be predicted.

Developmental stages in different strands have been developed – for example Kegan’s three levels of complexity in cognitive capacity, Kohlberg or Gilligan’s six levels of moral reasoning, the basis for ethical behaviour, but these usually are silent on the influence of other strands.

It is easier to see the developmental nature of physical development from infancy to toddler to childhood to adolescence and young adulthood through elderhood – the trajectory of positive mental health has the same kind of developmental nature, though some dimensions may be slowed or arrested as a result of life experiences. The emerging understanding of the impact of trauma in early childhood is helping to identify ways in which brain development is influenced, with impacts on both mental and physical health later in life.

Some students will aim for continuously improving their positive mental health beyond ‘good enough’. This will require life-long practices but will be important to those with goals of thriving in more and more complex lives. This would be analogous to a high-performance athlete working at developing both their physical and mental ‘game’ so as to compete in more challenging situations. Though different people will define flourishing or thriving from their own perspective, achieving these will require developmental or transformational shifts, and developing more and more internal locus of control in environments with higher and higher degrees of ambiguity and complexity.

Other sources of the infinite variability

  • Diversity of Individual choices and emphasis
  • Individuals and groups apply diverse meanings to challenges and responses through their diverse sociocultural lenses
  • Students have diverse history, developmental stages and life journeys
  • Students live, study, work, play and worship in diverse environments
  • Small, seemingly insignificant experiences can influence a student’s life trajectory and have major long-term impacts.

Embracing this variability means that health-promoting and health-enabling environment strategies are most effective and comprehensive when they engage multiple disciplines and multiple sectors and incorporate multiple worldviews. Helping a person to experiment with different strategies, learn what works for them, that they enjoy enough to continue doing, and can do at the same time as they’re doing other things, is most helpful.