Advice on creating a healthy mental health culture from Dr. Kris of Active Minds
Of all the issues higher education dealt with during and coming out of a global pandemic, mental health is one of the most pressing and serious ones. It will also have one of the longest lasting impacts. From staff burnout to sky high levels of anxiety for everyone at the institution, the looming question for many in higher ed is “how do we help?”
The Mayo Clinic recently found that up to 44% of college students report symptoms of depression and anxiety. Thirty percent of students felt depressed in the past year, and half felt overwhelmingly anxious. The pandemic and the resulting dramatic changes to everyday life definitely play a role in these numbers. Active Minds reported in its Fall 2020 survey that nearly 90% of college students are experiencing stress or anxiety as a direct result of COVID-19. A quarter of students say their depression “significantly increased.” Sadly, 67% of 18-24-year-olds with anxiety or depression don’t seek treatment, according to Active Minds.
As we return to gathering in person, a new level of pressure adds to the equation — the pressure to “return to normal” when things are still far from okay. Dr. Kristen Lee (Dr. Kris), Lead Faculty of Behavioral Science at Northeastern University, author of Worth the Risk: How to Microdose Bravery to Grow Resilience, Connect More, and Offer Yourself to the World, and a professional mental health speaker with Active Minds, notices new questions looming:
“How do we strive for excellence and rigor while maintaining a sense of wellbeing? Do excellence and rigor need to be compromised? How do we approach this global mental health crisis collectively in a strategic and thoughtful way that helps us get to a better place together?”
The resounding theme in her research is resilience, and what that looks like in a post-pandemic world — especially in the high-pressure microcosm of higher ed. It’s a “loaded construct” that needs unpacking and reframing to achieve a healthy mental health culture, according to Dr. Kris.
“I want to share a quote because I think it really captures ways we can get to a better place in mental health culture. ‘The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.’ — Alvin Toffler.”
The ability to unlearn past habits and ways of thinking and relearn our approach to mental health and resilience with acceptance, forgiveness and openness is critical to addressing today’s pressing mental health challenges.
CONTEXT IS KEY TO HEALTHY MENTAL HEALTH
Over the past two years, the world underwent struggles on a scale we haven’t seen globally in generations. But the whole time, the focus was on “getting back to normal.” This myopic mantra ignores the fact that our current world isn’t normal. Even when the pandemic does subside, it will have long-lasting mental health impacts that can’t (and shouldn’t) be ignored. Looking at mental health in the context of 2019 belittles the actual situation.
“It’s important to consider the context at hand, especially during times of challenge and trauma,” Dr. Kris explains. “We know that, but it’s important to remember. Sometimes if we’re not remembering, we can see [mental health struggles] as a moral failing on our part.”
Keeping context in mind is particularly important in higher education settings, which have many competing priorities. The trick is to maneuver through it in a mindful way.
Dr. Kris recommends looking at institutional priorities and overall mental health through a trauma-informed lens to understand and move through this moment in time. Understanding situational context helps individuals and institutions adapt, adjust and look for evidence-based strategies to sustain and thrive.
“In 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) asserted that, ‘There’s no health without mental health.’ Mental health is everything. It’s more important than grades, test scores, likes on our feed, money in the bank, status, what people think of us,” Dr. Kris says.
The world changed, and we need to change with it. Understanding how to address mental health — within the context of today’s unique needs and challenges — requires breaking down preconceived notions and taking a new look at what being resilient and mentally healthy means.
MYTHS AROUND RESILIENCE
“What drives resilience? What drives a healthy mental health culture?” Dr. Kris poses. “So much of it comes down to communication, relationships and the way we create the conditions for all of us to be seen.”
Unfortunately, resounding myths stand in the way, impacting our perception of resilience in a way that doesn’t align with positive mental health. Dr. Kris shares a few of the biggest “resilience myths” that need busting so students, faculty, staff and society as a whole can be happier, healthier and ultimately “be seen.”
Myth 1: Resilience is linear, fixed, romantic, boot strappy
“We often have these romanticized ideas of setbacks and comebacks and someone being gritty,” Dr. Kris explains. “Then we hear a lot of shaming toward today’s generation, ‘You guys are just snowflakes, you’re weak, you’re soft.’ We need to look at the context to understand why we need to be resilient in the first place. If we think it’s just a matter of sheer will or skills an individual possesses we’re missing the point.”
It’s the idea of resilience for resilience sake. Being proud of the “I walked uphill, barefoot, in the snow to get to school” argument instead of stepping back and recognizing that situation for what it really was — not a character-building life experience but something that was genuinely difficult.
Instead, resilience should be the result of understanding the challenge you’re facing, why it’s a struggle, seeking (and accepting) help and moving forward as you can. It won’t be perfect, but it doesn’t have to be a struggle for struggle’s sake either.
“Resilience can be very messy,” says Dr. Kris. “It’s a process with massive redos all the time.”
Myth 2: Mental health issues are obvious
You never know who’s struggling or what they’re struggling with. Committing that philosophy to memory lets you keep the open mind and heart critical to helping yourself and others.
“It’s often the person who always has the perfectly ironed shirt and the curated answers and the beautiful pictures on their feed that sometimes make me go ‘hmm.’ That goes for our students too, the ones that always get the A and have their hand up and are engaged. That might not necessarily signify that they’re fine and dandy and that they’re ok,” Dr. Kris cautions.
Today’s global context “can and will affect all of us.” Open and proactive mental health discussions plus universal precautions making it easier to speak up and seek help are critical for everyone.
“We need to integrate mental health into our conversations to make it more normalized,” Dr. Kris says. “The whole idea of help-seeking and help-giving is much less stigmatized than years ago. We’ve opened up so much of that conversation, but we still have a long way to go in how we perceive it. A lot of times mental health struggles can be hidden from someone else’s view.”
Myth 3: I need specialized training to be impactful
Many times, people hesitate to reach out or help because they don’t feel qualified. Campaigns like the recent “Seize the Awkward” commercials actively work to dispel this myth. The truth is, the smallest step can be the lifeline someone needs. Sometimes it’s easier to open up to a trusted friend, mentor or advisor than to seek more formal, professional intervention — especially if the person feels they need to be resilient and shoulder the struggle on their own.
“The small things can make a big difference and you don’t necessarily need to have a clinical degree or a poetic intervention to be helpful to those you serve and care about,” Dr. Kris explains.
Simply asking someone if they’re okay can be the doorway they need.
Myth 4: The mental health crisis only impacts students
In higher ed, it’s easy to focus so much on serving students that faculty and staff forget they need self-care and support too. Especially with the stress of an abrupt transition to remote teaching, faculty, staff and higher ed leaders are particularly susceptible to burnout (which was reclassified by the WHO in 2019 as a condition of the modern workplace).
The Chronicle of Higher Education’s 2020 study found a dramatic spike in higher ed staff burnout — a direct result of the pandemic. Faculty stress levels doubled in just a year, jumping from 32% in 2019 to 69% in 2020. More than 50% of higher ed faculty seriously considered changing careers or retiring early.
“What’s important for us to recognize as educators and leaders in this space is that we do run a particular risk for burnout — even before the pandemic,” says Dr. Kris. “We know that educator burnout has always been a grave concern. So what does it mean to engage in a process of strategic well-being that allows us to stay and do well even within complex times.”
It’s important to approach mental health in higher education holistically, creating a healthy mental health culture to nourish and support needs across the entire institutional ecosystem, Dr. Kris explains.
“What’s good for those we serve is good for us.”
Myth 5: Self-care is superficial, selfish and won’t work. Plus who has time?
“Treat yourself” has become a cultural comedy skit, but the foundational idea of self-care is necessary to healthy mental health. Getting around the idea that it’s selfish or a waste of time is difficult though, Dr. Kris says.
“Self care is a very loaded thing. People think it’s salt baths and chocolate cake and treat yourself and #MotivationMonday. It’s taken on a connotation that is very superficial. Some of us may even feel guilty, like it’s selfish.”
Educators in particular have a hard time dedicating time to self-care because they don’t feel they’re doing enough and that there isn’t enough time in the day. Dr. Kris says she often hears from educators around the world that it’s hard to find time to implement nourishing strategies that help avoid and mitigate burnout.
“I hear that every day from good people who are trying to show up thoughtfully and mindfully, but feel overwhelmed.”
One of the issues is that we stigmatize leisure in our culture, instead of viewing it as necessary and restorative.
“We feel unproductive, we feel lazy if we have leisure. But it’s toggling out of the stress and allowing a reprieve. Brain science shows that we are very capable of restoration and homeostasis when we create those moments.”
CREATING A HEALTHY MENTAL HEALTH CULTURE
In many cases, busting these myths and creating a healthy mental health culture requires openness and action — from others and ourselves. As Dr. Kris mentioned when discussing resilience, it’s a “messy process” that isn’t complete overnight — especially with the world in continued upheaval creating new mental health stressors daily. The trick is mindfully pursuing a “we” mindset and cultivating a community of accountability, validation and support.
You may not need qualifications to ask someone if they’re alright, but that doesn’t make it any less daunting. If simply asking if someone is alright seems too vague, Dr. Kris provides alternatives that may feel more natural:
- How are you coping with all of this?
- What’s on your mind?
- What is one thing we could do right now to make this situation better?
- I was thinking about you. Can we schedule a time to catch-up on Friday? (Suggesting a specific time is important for actual follow-up. We all know that a general “let’s get together” rarely actually happens.)
- Recall and ask about the “little things” they’ve shared with you — plans, something they were excited about, etc.
- Ask about something they care about
These more thoughtful questions can encourage people to open up and feel comfortable addressing a difficult topic with you.
“Be sure not to skip over the simple things,” Dr. Kris advises. “Sometimes we think the problem is so big, I need to do this big thing. Sometimes we can just start with that beginner’s mind of basic regard and basic communication.”
When someone does open up, Dr. Kris recommends a tool from Active Minds to successfully approach a potentially awkward conversation — the “VAR” (Validate, Appreciate, Refer) approach. These steps put both parties at ease.
It’s tempting to jump straight into giving advice or trying to help, but that’s often not what people need right away. Instead, validate their feelings and experiences first, Dr. Kris says.
“If a student comes to you and they share something difficult that they’re grappling with, the first aspect is just that they feel seen, listened to and heard.”
A few phrases for these situations include:
- That sounds difficult.
- That makes sense.
- I’m so sorry you’re going through that.
- What you’re going through is real and valid.
- This sounds super overwhelming.
- It’s ok to be frustrated and disappointed.
Stay away from “I” statements, Dr. Kris cautions.
“This is about really making sure the person knows that they’ve been heard and that their concerns are valid.”
Speaking out or seeking help is just as (if not more) difficult as asking if someone is okay. Acknowledge that difficulty and the courage they showed. Statements like “It can be hard to find the words with everything going on these days. Thanks for saying so. It helps to know what you’re going through. I appreciate you sharing. Sharing helps us get through this,” help put the student at ease and reaffirm their decision to speak up. The key is encouraging candor and candid connections, says Dr. Kris.
Move to helping only after validating and appreciating. This includes getting more clarification on their challenges and needs, then referring to appropriate support systems if necessary. During this portion of the conversation, Dr. Kris recommends asking questions like:
- What do you do for self care?
- What’s your work/school-life balance like?
- How does some fresh air sound?
- What would be helpful to you in this moment?
“It’s that triage,” she explains. “It’s that ability to help hold that space where someone feels validated, their courage is affirmed, and then you’re helping them get to a place where they can have someone trained provide the right support.”
“It’s important to avoid things like trying to fix the issue or rushing to a solution before you validate the experience. Or to be critical or judgmental or to even use our own experiences preemptively. Our own experiences can be very rich and beneficial but it’s all about timing.”
Adopting a healthy mindset, attitude and practices puts you in a better place to help others. By lifting ourselves up, we become supports and models for those who need a helping hand. Dr. Kris has a set of micro strategies for healthier habits and creating a healthy mental health culture on and off campus.
“You don’t need sweeping overhauls, it’s the small things that can make a difference,” she explains. “These strategies can help build traction.”
The importance of personal boundaries has been a major social talking point over the past few years. The movement in general recognizes you need to be happy and comfortable with yourself first, and giving too much (i.e. not setting boundaries) jeopardizes that.
We often push ourselves too hard, especially with so many competing initiatives and priorities. Boundaries are critical to pacing ourselves and keeping an eye on the long game, says Dr. Kris. Without boundaries, you’re not at your best, affecting everything else in your life.
“It’s difficult because there are so many pressing needs and priorities, but it’s important,” Dr. Kris explains. “It’s important that we make mental health a priority in our systems, in our own lives and in our relationships. Remember, we’re not ‘human doings’ we’re human beings. We’re not robots or machines.”
Mindfulness is another popular social trend. It’s easy to get caught up in the world, jobs, school, family, responsibilities, daily life, etc. and forget to actually appreciate anything. Dr. Kris recommends practicing awe and gratitude and encouraging that practice across your institution. Celebrating small things, staying in the now and seeking solidarity and community are important parts of everyday life.
Dr. Kris also recommends watching for “that toxic inner critic” and anticipatory anxiety. They’ll always be there, but mindfulness helps prevent them from becoming debilitating.
“One of my favorite things to consider is our locus of control. Focus on what is in our locus of control, because so much falls outside of that.”
Healthy mental health, especially in a semi-closed ecosystem like a higher ed environment, doesn’t happen alone. Mental health challenges often feel isolating, which exacerbates the problem. Solidarity and community combat this challenge.
“Know that none of us are alone. Whatever level of suffering we’re experiencing, we’re not alone,” says Dr. Kris. “The biggest [challenges] like perfectionism, imposter syndrome, anxiety, depression can haunt us and rent that space in our heads and tell us ‘you’re the only one.'”
Building a community of support and inspiration for individuals and across the institution fights dangerous isolation.
“When we create learning communities and healthy mental health cultures we need that sense of solidarity and collective efficacy, the movement from the ‘me’ to the ‘we.'”
FOSTERING HEALTHY MENTAL HEALTH
Mental health has always been a challenge in higher education, and the anxiety, stress and sorrow of the pandemic ballooned the issue to incredible proportions.
To foster healthy mental health environments on and off campus, we must reject the resilience-obsessed cultural mindset and replace it with openness, vulnerability and support. Knowing how to help others and ourselves is the first step to building an institution-wide focus on mental health and the community mindset required to support healthy mental health.
“What does it mean to create a sense of belonging? Connection is protective and important,” Dr. Kris shares. “When we move to a purpose, to a “we” mindset and we adopt this mindset of community, and messiness, it’s very protective.”