|Students work with their strengths through the Flourish program.|
There’s an unusual program at U of T Scarborough that can’t be found in the course calendars, but may be one of the most important learning experiences of a student’s life.
An option available to every UTSC student, the Flourish program is like an advanced introduction to yourself: it aims to teach participants to use their own signature strengths to overcome adversity of all kinds, academic, social and emotional.
Many students can feel overwhelmed by the new academic and social challenges the post-secondary world brings. But Flourish, as its name implies, shows students not only how to cope, but how to thrive, intellectually, socially and emotionally.
“What we strive to do is to say what are your stressors, and how can we solve them,” says program creator Tayyab Rashid, a clinical psychologist and researcher at UTSC. “When else in your life will you have an opportunity to look at your life as an emerging adult?”
Watch Dr. Rashid's TEDx talk on the importance of strength-based resilience.
Preventative Mental Health
Surveys from across North America, including universities in Canada, have found worrying increases of distress and depression amongst postsecondary students. Yet while ‘preventative health’ has become a standard approach in modern medicine, through say, diet, or exercise, the notion of ‘preventative mental health’ is a concept still evolving.
“We don’t see the mind through the same prism of preventative medicine,” says Dr. Rashid.
But that perspective is slowly changing with the work of positive psychology – a growing field which essentially turns the traditional approach to mental illness on its head. Instead of looking at weaknesses, or what’s wrong with someone after distress has set in, it encourages individuals to use their strengths to keep serious distress from striking. Flourish, for example, includes a range of strength-building activities, such as group workshops, writing exercises, and mindfulness meditation.
“One of my favourite activities that we do in Flourish workshops is the one where we are given example scenarios and we are asked to use our strengths to come up with solutions to solve the problem,” says Basma Chamas, a fourth year student at UTSC. “Each time I take part in the activity, I am able to come up with new ways to use my strengths.”
As students learn to ‘’see their own strengths and to own them,” says Dr. Rashid, they learn to translate them into practical skills to manage stress and become resilient.
The benefits of You-ology
Each student who joins Flourish fills out a detailed, confidential assessment that touches on everything from academics to relationships. The responses help to pinpoint a student’s salient strengths, such as kindness, bravery, creativity, curiosity, or social intelligence.
“It’s quite an eye-opener, especially since it is a lot more informative than the Buzzfeed quizzes rampant on the internet,” says Chamas, who joined the program two years ago and has since become one of its ‘ambassadors’. “I expected humour to be a strength of mine as I tend to crack a joke here or there, but I didn’t expect appreciation of beauty to be another.”
Both strengths now feature in the creative “feel-good kit” Chamas has put together for use whenever she’s feeling stressed. It includes a playlist of funny videos and supplies to work on the calligraphy she enjoys. Or, to indulge her appreciation of beauty, she finds even looking at calligraphy GIFS or taking a walk along the leafy campus paths “tend to do the trick.”
It’s up to each student to choose how often to take part in Flourish. But Dr. Rashid feels many students could benefit from what’s offered. Based on 1600 responses since the program launched in 2012, 20 per cent of incoming students fall into the “languishing” category – that is they suffer from high stress and a low sense of well-being. And while 25 per cent start out in the “flourishing” category, reporting low stress and a high sense of well-being, that figure drops to about 19 per cent by the following year.
The challenge, says Dr. Rashid, is convincing students the value of taking a “deep dive” into knowing themselves: “Students can have a sense of invincibility.”
Chamas has just one piece of advice for students thinking about taking the dive: “Do it, do it, do it,” she says. “Not only will it provide you with valuable tools to overcome stress and develop resiliency, but you also get to develop close relationships with the upper years who are in the program…(and) newcomers.
“If anything Flourish will provide you with an invaluable experience to your undergraduate career.”