Monday Musings: Renegades Put the Spin on Mental Health

A chance to learn. An opportunity to share. I’m heading to the Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health this week. While it is a wonderful privilege to participate in this event, I am merely the representative for the students who are the driving force behind true innovation, particularly in the field of mental health. When you ask students to tell you what they need or what they wish they had heard in high school, they have the answers. And it is these students, who have worked with me over the past few years, who dreamed, designed, and delivered a pretty incredible educational model to promote mental health among their peers.

When I started out as a university student many years ago, I was a wanderer. Just like the X Ambassadors’ lyric video of their hit song, Renegades, I was a skater (that’s legit), travelling alone on a course down a dimly lit road, with no clear direction. With one foot firmly on the deck and the other pushing me forward, I drifted into the classroom, choosing a seat at the back of the huge lecture hall, hoping something would not only capture my interest, but captivate me. I longed for something to take hold of my feeble brain and fuel my need to be stoked. I found that in the field of psychology. As I successfully bombed the hills of knowledge year after year, it didn’t always equate to understanding. I had to do some street skating, carve into the shadows and grind some curbs with people whose vulnerability challenged me to go outside of a textbook and into their mindset.

And so I skated through the years helping people bail before crashing. But, for the past few years I haven’t gone alone. No! I’ve been accompanied by the most incredible young minds Canada has to offer. These students truly are the dream team. In skater lingo, they are sick!

The most important things I learned as a student I have summarized before and have shared with every student who comes into my classroom. But now I want to share with you the three things I have learned from my own students. It’s pretty rad!

  1. Relationships make my mental wheels go ‘round. Whether it’s with parents, teachers, friends, or partners, relationships form the deck of a person’s mental health. In the project, we heard from several high school students about the pressures they feel from the important people around them. Pressure to perform; pressure to please; pressure to become what others think is best for them. Pressure to meet a standard of perfection in appearance, athleticism, and academics. That’s a heavy load to bear when you are still trying to discover who you are -which is the normal and natural psychosocial state for youth according to theorist Erik Erikson. These external pressures become internalized and the person feels insignificant, insecure, and the seeds of anxiety and depression are planted. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard an emerging adult say that they don’t like themselves, I would be a wealthy person. Pressure is at the root of that belief. Students spend so much effort trying to please others, that they lose sight of themselves in the process. If we are ever going to make positive change in mental health, we need to change the conversation from expectations (“you should do this”) and instead allow for more freedom of discovery. Relationships that are supportive are critical to skating on flat ground. And yes, in the realm of education, that may financially cost more as people change paths (even mid-stream), but it’s far better to take extra time charting a course that fits the person’s interests and abilities, than to stay on a course not meant for them. That may be burly, but for mental health, it’s all about the stance you take. There’s more than one way to grab your board.

  2. Authenticity - just be real with me! The world is full of fakers. Part of that comes from point number 1. In order to please everyone, we have to pretend that we are someone we are not and that everything is ‘fine’. But when it comes to emerging adults, they are looking for role models who they can relate to and who are not afraid to tell it like it is. My team developed a model where the mask is peeled away to reveal the reality of student mental health. When students hear that others they admire also struggled with failure, fitting in, making friends, or not knowing what they wanted to do with their life, it’s powerful! What we found too was that so many of those who are the listening ear for everyone else, are the ones who live in the shadows of their own loneliness and insecurity. It’s easy to be strong for others; it’s hard when you have to go home to the solitude of your own room and face your own internal turmoil – if you are strong for others, how can you show your own weakness? Seeing stars such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Adele recently open up about their own experiences with depression is paving the way towards acceptance and authenticity. It’s a gnarly move, therefore, when male and female college students open up to grade 12’s about their struggles and how normal that is.

  3. Drop In and go Deep with Me. In skater language, Drop In happens when you go from a flat platform and then take a steep transition. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying but it’s where you really get to learn what you are made of! I’ve got a few scars from several aciddrops, but you know what, it never stopped me from trying again. For young people today, they are craving depth. They want to talk; they want to transition from surface level communication into more significant and meaningful conversation. I experience this every single day, as students Drop In to my office, and I love it! To hear them ask questions, search for meaning and purpose in their own lives, is pretty awesome. And when we create a safe space for them to do this, it is sick! So, the beauty of the project my students have worked on is that they have been able to successfully create that same connection with the grade 12's not just once, but three times, over the academic year. My team of College students are keeping it real with the grade 12's as they build relationships, by being authentic, and by providing opportunities to go deep as they discover who they are and how to adult.

The hope for our future lies in these emerging adults, the true renegades. They know what it takes to be ok. It’s not only rad, it’s insane, and I am stoked to talk about it this week at the conference!

This week's song is most definitely Renegades by X Ambassadors.

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