Four strategies for engaging post-secondary students as collaborators to advance post-secondary student mental health

9th April 2024

Authors: Jennifer Thannhauser and Andrew Szeto, University of Calgary

Jennifer Thannhauser photo  Andrew Szeto photo

The National Standards of Canada for Mental Health and Well-being for Post-Secondary Students (Canadian Standards Association [CSA], 2020) is a voluntary set of guidelines that help develop and implement a holistic framework to address mental health needs at post-secondary institutions (PSIs).

The Standard recognises that everyone has a role and responsibility in shifting the culture within PSIs to foster community and support wellbeing. The first stated guiding principle of the Standard is student-centeredness, which means including students in the process of developing, implementing, and evaluating the PSI's framework. Students are recognised as valuable partners and their opinions are required, valued and respected as vital expertise. Students should be viewed not only as the recipients of services, but also should be included in the co-design and development of research and programmes that are offered.

With increasing demands for mental health services, along with reduced stigma and increased mental health literacy, PSIs have been developing and implementing innovative models and services in effort to address the evolving mental health needs of students. However, research and evaluation of the effectiveness of these initiatives in the post-secondary context is largely lacking. To this end, a co-creation and student-centered approach to research, programme development, and programme evaluation is appropriate for improving the acceptability, effectiveness, efficacy, and delivery of mental health services for students.

By embedding students within all aspects of the process, we not only ensure that student voices are present and central but allow for the student perspective and experiences to inform and shape the process as it moves forward. If students are not embedded in the process, there is the risk that what is developed, implemented, or evaluated is not relevant or useful for the group this was intended for.

Four strategies for engaging students as co-researchers and collaborators:

  1. Capitalise on students' interests: Students serving as Students' Union representatives or volunteers with student campus mental health clubs and campus supports (e.g., peer support) are often familiar with common issues and experiences faced by the student population because of the advocacy work they do. As such, these students can be valuable individuals to include in co-creation of research and programming. Additionally, they may be able to help connect with other students that are interested and willing to support such initiatives.
  2. Maximise diversity: Intentionally recruiting students with diverse identities and experiences (e.g., ethnicity, age, gender identity, sexuality, domestic and international student status, graduate and undergraduate) enhances the relevance of the research by representing the diversity of the student body.
  3. Financial compensation: Offering an honorarium to students for their participation communicates that their contributions are valued, recognises the time commitment involved, and addresses ongoing challenges with financial insecurity for many students. Where possible, creating a paid student position further signifies the importance of the student voice and embeds it within the team.
  4. Navigating the student lifecycle: Students' lives typically revolve around the academic calendar, broken down by semester. For projects that extend over multiple academic years, the natural movement of students in and out of the institution can provide opportunities for integrating multiple student voices. Extra time should also be embedded in the project timeline to allow for training and transitions. Timing of research and evaluation should consider the academic responsibilities of students in effort to minimise placing excessive demands on students' time. Similarly, being mindful of the programme or level the student is at can aid in creating a more optimal fit for the student. For example, students from professional programmes or graduate students may have times where their time is taken up by programme elements (e.g., practicum) that prevent full participation.

Further discussion of our experiences with participant-oriented research in the post-secondary context can be found in our article Using participant-oriented research in post-secondary mental health programme development and evaluation.

While engaging knowledge users in research, programme development and evaluation is not without its challenges, these collaborative relationships strengthen the quality of the work and contribute to increased student engagement with the programme specifically and mental health services more broadly.

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