University Student Mental Health

Version 2In these uncertain and anxiety-provoking times, our universities have an increased responsibility to support student mental health and wellbeing. This is not about the issues of “spoiled and coddled” Gen Xers, helicopter parents, and the endless debates over the use of trigger warnings in higher education. This is about having a positive impact on not only our future workforce, but also our future leaders and change agents.

William Pang, a second-year student at McGill University in Montreal, wrote a moving NYT op-ed piece “The Season to Be Stressful” (December 19, 2016). He discusses his experience of learning to deal more effectively with overwhelming anxiety exacerbated by the highly competitive atmosphere of his university. He states, “I don’t think we should demonize an entire generation as reliant and narcissistic. We should instead celebrate a generation that is coming to realize the importance of initiating conversations about our mental health.” It is dismaying to read through the NYT comments to Pang’s op-ed piece with so many people basically telling him to buck up and become an adult.

The photo above is of me with the amazing UK nurse and PhD student Josephine NwaAmaka Bardi  with her social media campaign, “Raise Awareness of Mental Health in Higher Education” (#RAMHHE)  I met NwaAmaka Bardi this past September in Seville at the 5th Annual International Health Humanities Conference: Arts and Humanities for Improving Social Inclusion, Education and Health. She also works in the area of mental health cafes as an effective alternative community mental health service. London’s Dragon Cafe is a good example of a creative, welcoming, and supportive community cafe with a focus on mental health and wellbeing. It would be great to have a similar community cafe open to university students.

Universities UK is developing a mental health framework for universities to embed mental health and wellbeing across all university activities with the goals to decrease stigma and increase access to a variety of mental health and wellbeing services. (See: “New Programme to Address Mental Health and Wellbeing in Universities” December 2, 2017.) They point to the need of “getting universities to think about mental health and wellbeing across all their activities, from students and teaching, through to academics and support staff.” It doesn’t end with the provision of mental health and support services for students but needs to permeate the entire campus.

Doris Iarovici, M.D., a psychiatrist at Duke University Counseling and Psychological Services has written a book titled Mental Health Issues and the University Student (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). Although geared towards college mental health professionals, it includes useful information on the variety of mental health issues that our students face in universities—from anxiety, drug and alcohol problems, sexual assault, eating disorders, and relationship problems, to depression, suicide, and schizophrenia. She concludes by stating, “If we provide a range of services, including individual, group, and community programs, we will be in step with the goals of health care reform to focus on both prevention and optimizing outcomes.” p. 219

Empowering Healthy Communities Through the Arts

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Mural by a student in the Henderson South Studio MPHS (after-school art program for young people ages 9-18). Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015

“Art is the outward manifestation of human experience in the world. Art is necessary for survival. To be human and alive is to be an active art maker. Everything that humans create in their act of living is art.” -Tamati Patuwai, MAD AVE ‘Healthy and Thriving Communities’ Glen Innes, New Zealand

It was a happy accident, an unintended yet very welcome consequence of studying ‘how the Kiwis’ do community health from the ground (literally) up, from the community members’ perspectives. The recent experience has changed how I think about community health, has deepened my respect for the power of art (and libraries) to change lives, and has even altered how I view my own community back home in Seattle.

First, a brief recap of the experience to provide some perspective. What I’m referring to here is the recent University of Washington Study Abroad in New Zealand 5-week immersive program I co-led with Jim Diers, a social worker and internationally-acclaimed community development expert. Here is what our course description said about the study abroad program:

“Empowering Healthy Communities is an interdisciplinary Exploration Seminar in New Zealand, focusing on how various communities organize and advocate for overall health and wellbeing. In this seminar, we will combine community-engaged service-learning, community case studies, readings, reflective writing, student independent projects, and immersive living experiences, to challenge students to think more broadly and creatively about participatory democracy, civic engagement, sustainability, and the social determinants of health. This course is grounded in an international, community-engaged, service-learning format aimed at creating opportunities for transformational student learning. We will address the meanings of ‘diversity’ within global and local communities; issues of power and privilege; social justice; what it means to be civically engaged at the local and global levels; and the tensions and differences between tourism vs. travel, and community service vs. engagement.

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“The Oarsmen” wall mural on K-Road by Miriam Cameron, 2006. Part of the ‘Visual Artists Against Nuclear Arms’ series. “The idea is we’re all in this together.” Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015

New Zealand is an ideal location for this Exploration Seminar. The country has a unique blend of indigenous and immigrant cultures, and its people have a rugged, “number eight wire” can-do, and highly creative approach to solving individual and community problems. In 2014, New Zealand ranked number one in the Harvard Business School’s Social Progress Index for overall wellbeing, while the U.S. ranked number sixteen, just above Slovenia. New Zealand spends one-third less per person on health care than we do in the U.S., yet they have much better population health outcomes. How do they do it? That is one of the main questions we will ask and explore through our work and study in New Zealand. In addition, as New Zealand is a world leader in environmental sustainability efforts, we will challenge ourselves to go ‘as green’ as possible: living in youth hostels, recycling, walking and taking public transportation, and eating a mainly vegetarian diet for our group meals.”

As we discussed with the students at the beginning of our program, New Zealand slipped somewhat in the 2015 Social Progress Index, but is still in the top tier/top ten of the 133 countries with sufficient comparison data to include. In 2015 for the ‘Health and Wellness’ category, New Zealand ranked 9th and the U.S. ranked 68th. And somewhat ironically in light of our study abroad program, the U.S. ranks first world-wide in the Access to Advanced Education category, and is weakest in Health and Wellness and Ecosystem Sustainability. I tried to remind students of this fact, especially when some of them grumbled about the vegetarian meals and relying on public transportation.

Using connections through the amazing New-Zealand group Inspiring Communities, we focused our time on a variety of local community groups working to empower and improve the places they call home. The Central Business District/ Karangahape Road in Auckland. The Avondale and Henderson communities on the outskirts of Auckland. Devonport and Waiheke Island, both more affluent communities. The Ruapotaka marae in Glen Innes. Then south to the Wellington area communities of Porirua, Bromphore School, and Epuni. Consistent through all of these communities was an emphasis the community members placed on the use of the arts to catalyze positive change and to enable community wellbeing. That and public libraries, which community members treasured as being the heart and soul and ‘mind food’ of their communities. Places where true democracy happens. Places to “dream up and enact crazy ideas.” Places that nurture “the freedom to change.”

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Mural by schoolchildren at the true ‘community-building’ Berhampore Primary School, Wellington. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015

Art, including literary art, was literally everywhere we turned in these communities. And not just the typical government-sanctioned commissioned public art we are used to seeing in the U.S., but also much more grassroots , low barrier, “anybody can participate” community art shown in my photos in this post.

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A new version of “Girl with Balloon” street art by Bansky. On building on Karangahape (“K-Road”) Road, Auckland. Photo: Josephine Ensign/2015
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P1010020 First photo is of poetry by young people at the Te Oro youth community arts center in Glen Innes. Second photo is a ‘cast off’ (in the trashcan) poem by a rough sleeper/Auckland Central Library ‘Poetry Corner.” Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015

This sort of art not only beautified the communities, it also built community identity and promoted wellbeing. Walking around my hometown of Seattle this past week, I’ve been searching for similar sparks of community wellbeing through art and have had a hard time finding them. Yes, we do have some great bus shelter artwork, as well as some building and wall murals–and our public library system has been one of the best in the country (and hopefully will remain so despite a very silly rebranding effort), but I cannot find the same level of  empowering healthy communities through art. Perhaps this is an important ‘take home’ message, one we could use to improve community health and wellbeing in the U.S. More art, less guns.