• Larry White

In It Together: Arguments in favour of learning communities that support students' mental well-being

Updated: Oct 20, 2019

In the recently published opinion piece The Costs of Overpromising, Billie Wright Dziech argues that "it is impossible to identify and treat all the college students who experience anxiety and depression, and we must determine which groups we can effectively assist."

Hmmmmm... I’m definitely pausing for thought on this. I'm not sure that I agree with Dr. Wright Dziech.

It is true and well documented that instances of mental illness are on the rise in the post‑secondary education (PSE) community, among both students and staff/faculty (Gorczynski, 2018; Linden, u.d.). But, I'm not certain that the best approach is to withdraw or limit services and supports simply because we are not trained clinicians.

I will go out on a limb and make the statement that I believe that a good proportion of mental illness being experienced in our world is a factor of simply living in the societies that we have created over the years/decades/centuries. We all must assume some responsibility for the making of our current global and local situations and, because of that, I believe that we must all assume some accountability for resolving the problems that arise - including the rise in mental illness in the PSE community.

Just think about any typical student for a moment.

They leave home to go to college or university (I will refer just to colleges from this point but mean both) because economics of geography limit the viability of placing a college in every community. They might be carrying the baggage of growing up in a dysfunctional family, perhaps even suffering physical, sexual, emotional or other abuse. The education system they grew up with has not prepared them to live on their own.

When they arrive at city or town in which their college resides, many have left their entire support structure, their entire world, behind them and find themselves alone in an unfamiliar environment. They are often responsible for preparing their own meals for the first time, paying bills for the first time and having to navigate and comprehend complex and binding agreements, such as signing a lease to rent an apartment, for the first time.

Then they arrive on campus.

They face a schedule with as many as six courses per term, many with rigorous assignments and culminating assessments that have conflicting obligations and deadlines. They face the challenge of making unwanted decisions about which course should have priority over another in order to be successful, putting them directly at odds with the system that places mostly equal value on each and every course. They face growing angst about their own decisions in this regard because their abilities are not reflected in their grades, simply because they had to make a prioritizing decision in order to remain afloat.

Oh, and grades… don’t get me started on the pressures they cause – the competition, the vying for jobs, the erroneous need instilled in us as we grow up to impress others. All of these externalities internalized when our ultimate purpose should be to foster a genuine love for learning.

… and a whole host of other first-time-ever-experienced challenges that no one warned them about; that no one ever taught them to address; that they find on their own; alone.


Colleges play a role in creating the society we live in. Therefore, colleges must play a role in helping to resolve the social problems that arise, including providing supports to students experiencing depression, anxiety and other types of mental illness.

I’ve never read an account in which someone has argued that colleges should not help to solve the problem of climate change, or the problem of urban sprawl, or the problem of cancer, or the problem of providing education for all. So, why are we seeming to draw a line in the sand at colleges helping to solve the problem of mental illness?

Let’s take a step back for a moment and think about the commonalities among students. The fact that each comes from a different history and is living their own unique story makes finding any commonality a challenge. Sure, some attend the same college, but others don’t. Some attend the same programs, but not all.

In fact, when you give it some thought, there really is only one commonality for all students. Regardless of jurisdiction, institution, program, status, or any other factor, every student interacts with curriculum and the pedagogy that was used to create it.

I should re-emphasize this thought: Regardless of jurisdiction, institution, program, status, or any other factor, every student interacts with curriculum and the pedagogy that was used to create it.

There is clearly a role to play for the clinicians, therapists and other student services specialists engaged by colleges to support students’ mental health. There is clearly a role to play for faculty and staff at colleges to develop an awareness and watchfulness, indeed an obligation (as does everyone in a community), regarding signs of mental illness and the supportive actions to follow.

But, as Dr. Wright Dziech indicates, these resources are limited, and I agree. So, what next?

Given the commonality of student interaction with curriculum and pedagogy, should we not be giving some thought as to how we might capitalize on both and how they could be supportive of student mental health?

Much the same as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) has been adopted as the defacto standard in instructional design, it has been adapted over the years to support student academic success in a variety of situations, such as in supporting the specific learning needs of indigenous students (Green, 2010), supporting the specific learning needs of first generation students (House, Neal & Kolb, 2019), and supporting the learning needs of newcomers and refugees (Stewart & Martin, 2018), among other communities.

Indeed, in an emergent knowledge society (UNESCO, 2005), colleges have a pivotal role as the generators, sharers and implementers of research and knowledge in order to support, enhance and transform the life and health of global citizens and the communities in which they live (International Conference on Health Promoting Universities & Colleges, 2015).

I believe that there is benefit in examining and exploring at the intersection of instructional design and student mental health. There is a potential opportunity to adapt UDL principles at the very core of what every student experiences – the curriculum – in order to be mindfully supportive of student mental health, thereby helping to mitigate some of the stressors to mental wellness and barriers to academic success that they create.

In fact, I am exploring this very intersection in my EdD research. The ultimate aim of my study is to determine the efficacy of supporting student mental health, indeed in fostering the resilience needed to navigate life, at the stages of curriculum development and instructional design, without sacrificing academic quality or rigour.

Before we give up, before we pass the baton to others, before we adopt the belief that we hold no accountability or responsibility, is it not our obligation as part of a learning community to, at the very least, explore all options and possibilities? After all, in order for our global community to thrive, we all must thrive. We are all interconnected.


Canadian Association of College & University Student Services and Canadian Mental Health Association. (2013). Post-Secondary Student Mental Health: Guide to a Systemic Approach. Vancouver, BC: Author.

Gorczynski, P. (2018). More academics and students have mental health problems than ever before. The Conversation. Retrieved May 15, 2019 at https://theconversation.com/more-academics-and-students-have-mental-health-problems-than-ever-before-90339.

Green, B. L. (2010). Culture is treatment: Considering pedagogy in the care of aboriginal people. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 48(7):27-34.

House, l. A., Neal, C. & Kolb, J. (2019). Supporting the Mental Health Needs of First Generation College Students, Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, DOI: 10.1080/87568225.2019.1578940.

International Conference on Health Promoting Universities & Colleges. (7th: 2015: Kelowna, BC). Okanagan Charter: An International Charter for Health Promoting Universities and Colleges. Retrieved May 15, 2019 at https://internationalhealthycampuses2015.sites.olt.ubc.ca/files/2016/01/Okanagan-Charter-January13v2.pdf.

Linden, B. (u.d.). Understanding Post-Secondary Student Stress: A Qualitative Analysis.

Stewart, S. & Martin, L. (2018). Bridging Two Worlds: Supporting Newcomer and Refugee Youth. Toronto, ON: CERIC.

Wright Dziech, B. (2019: October 8). The Costs of Overpromising. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved October 10, 2019 at https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2019/10/08/colleges-have-oversimplified-mental-health-crisis-and-overpromised-when-it-comes#.XZ9b7wDw-Y1.link.

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