Capacity Diversity

Diversity in Capacity and Capabilities, Readiness to Change

An important aspect of effective health-promoting and capacity building strategies is meeting the student where they are at. This then means a strategy must be able to be adapted for students’ different capacity and capabilities – which influence the ways they respond to challenges, to stress as well as the ways they learn from experience. One can consider the strength of a student’s capacity and capabilities FOR THE POST-SECONDARY EXPERIENCE as being Low, Medium or High. The context is critical – a student may have high capacity to respond to challenges when they are living at home because their capacity includes both their own and their family’s ability to support. These may not translate well when the student changes their context to living away from home, in a strange city with new and developing social relationships.

What do we mean by Capacities and Capabilities?

Influencing positive mental health includes strategies that influence a person’s capacity to engage with and cope productively with their world, which then produce subjective as well as objective reactions. Our capacity includes our ability to draw on both supports from our environment as well as the set of emotional, physical, psychological, creative and spiritual capabilities we have developed in the course of our lives.

Because a post-secondary world is a high-intensity world, the stressors faced by students are often greater, or different than they have faced before, and sometimes that means the stressors are beyond their ‘stretch’ capacity to respond in productive ways and learn better skills for their future benefit. Understanding the underlying mechanisms of a person’s capacity to cope productively or unproductively is important when designing effective health promoting strategies.

Learning, and positive mental health depends on an elegant combination of challenge and support. Too much challenge and the person becomes overwhelmed, and will resort to unproductive strategies to manage. Too much support and the person doesn’t develop the ‘capacity muscles’. Improving a person’s capacity to cope helps them both live their life better, but also helps them do better at learning, and later to be more successful in their careers.

The essence of designing capacity building strategies for individuals is thus helping them to recognize existing patterns and to improve their capacity to engage productively with increasing challenges in their world, rather than unproductively.

Struggling to find a common definition of mental health hasn’t been successful, and isn’t actually necessary to operationalize the concept. Rather, developing a way to include and encompass all the specialties, while maintaining their individual strengths is what is needed. Include and transcending the multiple specialties allows the infinite variations of peoples’ lives and preferences. An ‘ecological capacity building’ approach – recognizing that a person’s environments also needs to develop capacity – satisfies this requirement.

This toolkit uses the vehicle of the combined strands of a person’s positive mental health as Capacity, with individual strands as Capabilities. Thus, a person’s degree of positive mental health (Low, Medium or High) is their Capacity to engage with life’s changing challenges and opportunities in productive ways that make sense to them, where they feel in charge of their life, having a good day and a good life, and are building more capabilities. This capacity is comprised of multiple strands of capabilities, including:

  • emotional capabilities,
  • psychological capabilities,
  • cognitive capabilities,
  • social and relational capabilities,
  • creative capabilities,
  • moral, spiritual capabilities.

Competencies is the term used for the strength of the individual elements of a particular capability. For example, there are many elements of emotional capability.

Increasing the strength of these elements within a particular capability (e.g. increasing the strengths or competencies of emotional capabilities), as well as expanding the diversity of capabilities (which gives a person more flexibility in how to respond productively to a situation) helps a person develop a higher-level Capacity. In Keyes’ model, this might be characterized as developing from languishing through moderate positive mental health to flourishing and beyond.

The cable image is a way to picture the relationship between Capacity, Capabilities and Competencies.

The grey casing (left side) represents Capacity. Within that, the twisted colored plastic wires represent the various capabilities, and that they interact with each other. Within each of these capabilities (colored plastic wires) are a variety of competencies. Just as a cable is made stronger by including additional plastic wires, or by strengthening individual copper wires, so a person’s positive mental health is improved by strengthening individual competencies or by adding additional capabilities. A person who has over-identified with the cognitive capability will benefit by increasing their attention to the individual competencies within the physical capability.  

A person’s ability to purposefully mobilize their capacity and capabilities depends on their brain development and brain plasticity, particularly self-regulation and executive functions. The core set of capabilities necessary for adults to manage life, work, learning and parenting effectively fall under the umbrella of self-regulation and executive function:

  • focus,
  • self-control,
  • awareness,
  • flexibility, and
  • planning.

Developing and improving these key functions are basic health promotion challenges. Since these parts of the brain are still actively being developed up to age 30, helping this cohort of post-secondary students to build productive brain pathways for responding to ambiguity and complexity is particularly critical. As brains can remain plastic throughout life with continuous learning, because we now know brain pathways can be changed with practice, seasoned students also benefit from health promoting strategies.

[Strategies to improve health-enabling environments] means helping catalyze social, built, informational and natural environments (including the institution’s core business) that in turn support peoples’ capacity to craft a life in which they feel satisfied and function well with a meaningful life. {3.1 Environments}