Building and strengthening positive mental health is a Life Journey

Students arrive at their post-secondary stage not as a blank slate, but with existing patterns of response to fear, and with pre-existing brain pathways that influence learning and memory. These have been developed throughout their life, and influenced by prenatal and inter-generational as well as historical factors.

Thus, it is important to see a student’s mental health journey in their post-secondary years as a continuation of, and an opportunity to redirect historical patterns. Ideally a student would leave their post-secondary experience with more capacity to respond productively to life challenges than they came with but unfortunately that is not always the case.

Each person’s life-span journey evolves through a series of developmental stages, building on the foundation created through the prenatal period and intergenerational influences.

A person’s life journey is also interdependent with their ecosystem, as illustrated below.

View full size graphic or print handout

This way of looking at a life journey could as easily be called a person’s life-span health journey. The student’s mental health journey is one or more segments of that person’s life journey. Times as a student can occur in different developmental stages. This is one way in which the current world differs from a historical pattern when one tended to live in discrete segments – first as student, then at work (including homemaker work) and then as retiree.

Seen in this way, it is easier to recognize why a student isn’t a blank slate at the beginning of a post-secondary segment. Rather, a student arrives, armed with the capabilities they established through their earlier life developmental stages. For some, the post-secondary experience provides challenges that greatly exceed any they have experienced, as well as being separated from their traditional ecosystem supports, so their capacity to cope productively is significantly challenged. In turn, students’ strengthened or weakened capacity developed while at post-secondary will influence their journey through the rest of their life-span, as well as influencing others in their lives, their ecosystems and descendants. This means the potential return on investment for individuals and society in health promoting, ecological capacity building strategies in post-secondary campuses is significant, and the potential cost of missing it, high.

Illustrated in the magnified section of the graphic above are the five main facets that comprise the developmental stage: biological, cognitive, and socio-emotional. Underpinning all of these is brain development and brain plasticity, and the meaning-making that a person develops with the influence of their environment. A person’s overall capacity for coping with their life challenges ebbs and flows, growing or weakening through life with the strength of these facets and their experience of support, trauma or neglect from their ecosystem.

People’s positive mental health, challenges, and resiliency emerge from the interplay of these different facets. To take a holistic approach, post-secondary institutions, healthcare agencies, community agencies and community members as well as mental health teams must consider the relationship of these facets in their work. By understanding developmental stages and strengthening varied facets and environments, teams will create more resilient communities and individuals.

View full size graphic or print handout

A person’s influence also isn’t confined to their life-span, as each of us is influenced by our parents and ancestors through genetics and epigenetics, as we also influence our descendants. As Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist noted: “We reach backward to our parents and forward to our children, and through their children to a future we will never see, but about which we need to care.” These longitudinal influences are the root of intergenerational and historical influences on a person’s life trajectory and health journey.

The value proposition for investing in health promotion and health-enabling environments also must take into account the diffusion effect. Just as a person is influenced by their environments, so they influence other individuals, their families, neighbourhoods, communities and places where they live work worship and play as well as the wider society.

This concept of positive health is relevant to [organizations, communities and societies], { more} and the importance of health-enabling environments can be seen more clearly. These are more than groups of people and include the interdependent dimensions of the natural and built environments, social environment and informational environment as well as individual people. The same ‘life journey’ concept is applicable, so in purposefully developing health-enabling environments strategies it will be helpful to understand the history of the organization or community and key events along the way.