Connecting the PillarsHealth & Wellness

Connecting the Pillars: A Healthy Community

As #RyersonSA gears up for its annual Fall Summit meeting, we’re taking a few moments to reflect on the 5 Pillars that are the values and principles we use to guide our work with and for students. Once a day until the Summit, one of the directors will share how their department supports a pillar “outside” of their portfolio, because in the end, every department, unit, and person in RyersonSA embodies the essence of all 5 pillars.

In our final post, Gaya Arasaratnam looks at the powerful influence a strong community can have to helping nurture health on campus…

Q: What is “health”?

A: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

— World Health Organization (WHO)

The WHO’s definition is controversial. But despite its shortcomings, and the noisy debates that surround them, it serves as a powerful reminder that we are ill-served by focusing on one aspect of health. This is particularly true in Student Affairs where five distinctly different departments work together to build a healthy campus community where students are engaged, industrious, and above all, happy to be who they are and content in the dreams they set for themselves.

Admittedly, building a “healthy campus community” is neither easy nor quick, however, each RyersonSA department has a head start through its very membership in Student Affairs. Take my department as an example: Student Health and Wellness (SHaW) is intrinsically linked to its peers through the “social well-being” part of WHO’s definition of health. Through social well-being, our colleagues impact the Social Determinants of Health, the conditions in which we are born, learn, work, live, and (eventually) die. These conditions influence our access to education, work, housing, food, and basic services; they are the ethos and structures that makes our communities “tick” and our societies “work.” From a health perspective, one of the niftiest things about SHaW being part of RyersonSA is that each our non-health pillars contribute to the Social Determinants of Health, and through it, to “health” and a healthy campus community.

This year, SHaW is focused on assessing its services and models of delivery so that we can reap greater impact. As we embrace this new journey, I am reminded of RyersonSA’s Community Pillar and how SHaW supports it through our work in health and wellness.

In my conversations with students about what matters most to them, I often hear about their desire to feel a sense of belonging; a sense of connection to a people; a feeling of co-ownership of a place. The Centre for Student Development and Counselling’s Take Care groups go a long way in building a sense of community among students who want to share their stories, experiences, and learn that they are not alone. We are quickly learning that our Gen Y and Z students are more inclined to Google how to reduce anxiety than turn up at a workshop about it. Instead, they attend our in-person therapy groups for the opportunity to meet others who are like them and learn and heal together as they support one another.

Health Promotions is in the early days of exploring how we can infuse social innovation principles and creativity techniques into what we do, and through it, energize a campus community into not only co-owning the challenge of mental health, but also in devising practical solutions for it. Under Juannittah’s leadership, Health Promotions is also devising an innovative Student Assistance Program that is informed by student development and health promotions theory and models such as the “Wise Choice” process. Through it, highly trained wellness ambassadors model healthy behaviors and work with students to create personalised wellness plans (social / physical / mental well-being), and help them make wise choices to reach and sustain their goals.

A word cloud of stressors, but Wellness is the largest by far.

SHaW is also taking a fresh, research-informed approach to calendars by looking at them through the lens of emotion. Why? Because our data and experience suggests it has significant benefits.

Ryerson’s 2013 National College Health Assessment found that stress, anxiety, and sleep difficulties hinder student academic performance. In the US, the JED Foundation’s latest national survey found that 50% of first-year students reported “feeling stressed most or all of the time,” and that 36% “did not feel as if they were in control of managing the stress of day-to-day college life.”

To SA pros, Ryerson’s data may sound obvious, and JED’s data unsurprising. What is less well-known and often lost in the dialogue over “how stressed students are these days” is that the triggers—the root causes of symptoms such as stress and anxiety—change over time and have a predictable, cyclical nature. Therefore, although student anxiety is elevated in both September and May, the reason for the elevation is different. For example, at the beginning of the year, first-year students often feel stressed and anxious as they anticipate challenges in forging new friendships and relationships in a new and foreign setting. By the end of the academic year, their elevated stress and anxiety often result from worries about passing exams and finding summer employment. In RyersonSA, the department of Student Life’s inclusive and diverse orientation and post-orientation programing play a pivotal role in helping address triggers at the beginning of the year, while the Career Centre’s job fairs and work-study programs, and the Student Learning Services’ learning skills and test-preparation programs, help calm stress and anxiety towards the end of the academic year. And one cannot forget the significant, on-going, day-to-day live-in support Housing & Residence Life offer to their students.

Take another example: we know that stress elevates in September and October as students knuckle down for exams and assignments. Student Learning Services approaches this by ramping up promotion and programming around test support and preparation. SHaW, on the other hand, promotes its Take Care therapy groups but also knows the research that college and university students tend to be first-time users of stimulants such as Adderrall and Ritalin in November and December. Unrelated? I doubt it. Both substances are used as performance enhancers and coincidentally, finals are roaring around the corner. Armed with this knowledge, we have the opportunity to provide just-in-time interventions when students need them most and may be most receptive to hearing from us. Knowledge is a powerful thing and it raises our bar by reminding all of us that it’s not “enough” to hold an intervention on substance abuse in March (for example) for the sole reason that we’ve got a dead month with no programming.

Each RyersonSA department takes a unique approach to calendaring and emotion-focused calendars can go a long way in informing intentional programming across the Student Affairs portfolio. SHaW is working with SACreative to create an emotion-driven search engine so that a student can click on an emoticon (a “sad” face for example), and be shown a list of appropriate online therapy modules, in-person Take Care groups, and RyersonSA events that could address the root causes of their sadness. Our “mere” membership in RyersonSA gives us all the catalyst to do this, and by intersecting our work, we stand to reap much greater impact as we build and nurture a healthy campus community together.

That’s all, folks! RyersonSA holds its annual Fall Summit tomorrow, with a focus on the evolving 5 Pillars. Watch for a summary of the day this Friday!