Design Thinking for Campus Mental Health


tl;dr Design thinking as a strategic framework for campus mental health

A “mental health strategy” is a coherent and coordinated effort to move an organization closer to a place where it can begin to introduce new and stable patterns and opportunities related to mental health. This is about engaging in many intentional maneuvers, positioning and advantageously repositioning an organization so it can get closer to reaching a new state of being, thinking and doing. Along the way, these movements should aim to help increase the organization’s mobility and ability to adapt to change, and weaken and redesign the unhealthy structures that inhibit this progress. This, at least, is my understanding.

In considering what a framework for a campus wide mental health strategy can look like, I have turned to “design thinking” as a way of organizing my own intentions and approach.

And what exactly is design thinking?

Design thinking is a term I’ve given a lot of attention to over the past few years and has become wildly popular in the business, healthcare, and social enterprise space. I had a good discussion about the term more recently with several colleagues as we started working through the IDEO+Acumen course on Human Centered Design. While there is no clear consensus around its definition, there are common threads that emerge when people talk about design thinking as it is applied to generating innovative solutions to complex social issues. To me, there is merit in what “design thinking” can offer to a making and/or problem solving process. While I have no fully formed definition, here are some components that I think bring some level of concreteness to what I refer to when I say “design thinking”:

  • A stance or mindset that supports the development and realization of products, processes and services that impact people and contexts in new ways
  • This stance is centered around the human experience, and how people engage with the larger systems in which interact and are embedded within
  • It is a term that has been distilled from the creative/design industry and re-configured into processes and concepts that can be applied to other industries
  • It intends to produce change, from one state of being, to another
  • It is deemed to be particularly advantageous when navigating issue areas that possess a high level of uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity
  • A more tangible process associated with design thinking is as follows: understanding a ‘problem space’ through empathic methods, ideating various ‘solutions’ and ways to address the issue at hand, prototyping the potential ‘solutions’ in the real world, and evaluating the impacts

Based on this understanding, I see “design thinking” as enabling a campus to develop a response to mental health that is intentional, promotes social change, and deeply rooted in the human (student) experience. As a highly complex, invisible and broad issue that is traditionally addressed by the health sector alone, mental health is well suited for a design driven approach. Distilled into the visual I created above, here is how I see design thinking intersecting with a mental health strategy:

  • UNDERSTAND: “Understanding” can also be referred to as “research/assessment” and necessitates a multi-pronged approach that moves beyond traditional surveys and focus groups by incorporating observation, journey mapping, participatory methods, and storytelling. Empathy and experiential learning lay at the heart of understanding mental health on campus. Capturing a full range of perspectives must take place from multiple vantage points and mediums. This is particularly important when working with a creative audience whose communication channels may be verbal, visual, olfactory, gustatory, and/or auditory. Information captured in this phase can be used to identify critical issues where there is a desire or need for change.
  • IDEATE: While understanding is an ongoing process, there is a point where there is a healthy amount of information that can be used to generate informed ideas that will lead to desired change. Ideas can be wild, practical, broad or specific. Ideas can transform into concepts/frameworks that help make some sense of how they can be executed.
  • MAKE: Some ideas that meet certain criteria around feasibility are then moved into a stage where they are brought to life and tested in real world contexts. Rapid prototyping enables for quick wins or misses, leading to reflection and iterative revisions. In a mental health context, ideas need to prototyped with a heightened level of care and consideration.
  • REFLECT: Reflection, much like understanding, is ongoing. Reflection is necessary for evaluating and learning from the process and outcomes that take place. This is an important part of accountability and responsibility to the greater community, and particularly key in the making process when trying to define and measure impact. An outsiders perspective can also help gain new insights and reflections.

The visual implies a lot of nonlinear movement and overlap within and between the identified ‘phases’. Design thinking here lends itself well to a change making process, and nicely frames the different spaces through which our campus wide Committees will move through in order to offer and implement recommendations that improve mental wellbeing.

While I don’t know that applying design thinking to an issue like mental health will lead to any more innovative or better ‘solutions’ for campus, I think that it does offer a helpful framework for working through this type of ‘wicked‘ issue and supporting innovation by putting people first.


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