Mental Wellness

This section describes what mental health is and introduces the Wellness Wheel, which is a model based on Indigenous holistic perspectives of wellness. The Wellness Wheel is available as a PDF. See Handout 1: Wellness Wheel.

These slides are available for use with this section of the presentation. For information about downloading presentation slides, see Introduction.

What Is Mental Health and Wellness?

Brainstorming Activity

To open, ask people to jot down what they think of when they think of mental health and wellness. (If online, ask people to add one or two thoughts into chat.) Ask people to briefly share.

The Public Health Agency of Canada defines mental health as “the capacity of every individual to feel, think, and act in ways that enhance their ability to enjoy life and deal with challenges. It is a positive sense of emotional and spiritual well-being that respects the importance of culture, equity, social justice, interconnections, and personal dignity.”[1]

Mental health is essential to overall health and influenced by the many different factors. We can all work to restore our mental health and wellness.

Wellness Wheel

The Wellness Wheel aligns with Indigenous traditional practices that view individuals holistically, recognizing that wellness means being in a state of balance with the physical, emotional, academic/career, social, creative, spiritual, environmental, financial, and intellectual aspects of your life.

The Wellness Wheel is not a static concept, but a way of viewing the many dimensions that support wellness. There are things we can all do as individuals to improve our own mental health and well-being, and how we manage our wellness is an ongoing reflective practice.

The Wellness Wheel helps us to see what aspects might be falling in and out of balance in our lives. We can try our best to be flexible and respond to aspects of well-being that may need additional care or attention. Using the concepts in the Wellness Wheel can help us visualize our journey and assist in not only mitigating stressful circumstances, but also in recognizing areas of our lives in which we are thriving.

Dimensions of the Wellness Wheel

Click on the + signs in the Wellness Wheel for more information about each of the dimensions.

dimensions of wellness. image described by the following text

The following dimensions make up this Wellness Wheel:

Physical wellness: Taking care of your body through physical activity, nutrition, sleep, and mental well-being. For example:

  • Engage in some form of physical activity every day for at least 30 minutes
  • Eat a variety of healthy foods
  • Get an adequate amount of sleep every night (7–9 hours)

Emotional wellness: Making time to relax, reduce stress, and take care of yourself. Paying attention to both positive and negative feelings and understanding how to handle these emotions. For example:

  • Practice mindfulness
  • Start a gratitude journal
  • Pay attention to self-talk and shift toward positive self-talk
  • Track emotions daily to look for patterns and possible triggers

Academic/career wellness: Expanding your knowledge and creating strategies to support continued learning. For example:

  • Set up academic goals
  • Create a study schedule and plan ahead
  • Connect with a mentor to further your understanding of career ideas
  • Review your short- and long-term career goals regularly to make sure you are on track

Social wellness: Taking care of your relationships and society by building healthy, nurturing, and supportive relationships and fostering a genuine connection with those around you. For example:

  • Make an effort to keep in touch with individuals who are supportive
  • Practice active listening skills
  • Join a club or an organization to meet new people
  • Be mindful of commitments you make – know your limitations (don’t spread yourself too thin)

Creative wellness: Valuing and actively participating in arts and cultural experiences as a means to understand and appreciate the surrounding world. For example:

  • Play an instrument or make music
  • Engage in the visual arts
  • Try creative writing
  • Engage in creativity through movement (dance)

Spiritual wellness: Taking care of your values and beliefs and creating purpose in your life. For example:

  • Volunteer
  • Meditate
  • Express gratitude
  • Practice forgiveness and compassion for yourself and others

Environmental wellness: Taking care of what is around you. Living in harmony with the Earth by taking action to protect it and respecting nature and all species. For example:

  • Spend time in nature
  • When possible, travel by walking, riding your bike, or taking public transportation
  • Recycle and compost
  • Use reusable water bottles and shopping bags

Financial wellness: Learning how to successfully manage finances to be financially responsible and independent. For example:

  • Create and maintain a budget
  • Pay your bills on time
  • Pack your lunch to limit how often you eat out
  • Meal plan before grocery shopping

Intellectual wellness: Being open to exploring new concepts, gaining new skills, and seeking creative and stimulating activities. For example:

  • Try a new activity at school or in the community
  • Explore things that you are curious about
  • Read and write for pleasure


Resilience means being able to adapt to life’s challenges and setbacks. When something is out of balance in our lives or we’re experiencing stress, resilience helps us to shift back toward balance and mental wellness. It’s the ability to adapt to difficult situations and it can help protect us from various mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. Resilience isn’t about avoiding or ignoring challenges in life; rather, it’s noticing when stress appears and taking proactive steps to manage the stress and pressure.

The Wellness Wheel can help us recognize what might be causing stress or pressure in our lives. It also reminds us of our own resilience and strengths; while we may be struggling in one area, we may be doing well in many other areas.

Traditional Healing Practices

In many Indigenous cultures across Turtle Island (what we now call North America), Indigenous Peoples have used natural resources as a source of healing and ceremonial medicine since time began. These traditional healing practices are ways many Indigenous people restore balance and build resilience.

Below is one perspective on maintaining balance and wellness from Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw culture. You can share this with your group or consider reaching out to Indigenous Elders or Knowledge Keepers in your community to learn more about local traditional healing practices that you could share with participants.

In my culture, we use the roots of a yarrow plant steeped in hot water to make tea to soothe stomachaches, headaches, colds, and diarrhea. We steam cedar branches in a pot on the stove to help with respiratory distress. We burn sage to smudge and cleanse ourselves, our space, or items of negative energies or spirits. When we have painful or negative emotions or when grief, sadness, or loss overwhelms us, we are taught to go back to the land, to go back to the water, to reconnect with the universe’s life force. Doing this through ceremony can be simple or elaborate; we can do this in private or within a trusted community.

One way we refer to these medicines is as helpers. Water is a common helper many people use, going to a natural body of water and submerging themselves entirely so the water cleanses them head to toe. If you do not have access to natural bodies of water, stand in the shower – not a bath that you soak in, but a shower to let the water run over you. This can be a time to speak to your helper and share with it your burdens; tell it what is weighing you down and ask for the help you need, allowing all the negativity to flow off you with the water. End with words of gratitude for the support of that helper.

As each Indigenous community has its own sacred connections to its territory and the medicines and plants that thrive there, we encourage you to seek out Knowledge Keepers in your area to learn more. Observe protocol by approaching the Elder or Knowledge Keeper with deep respect and an offering of tobacco (loose tobacco as it comes in the pouch from any general store is sufficient) while asking them to share with you what their traditional helpers may be. Not all ceremonial or cultural knowledge can be shared freely with people outside the community, as some sacred knowledge is kept for the community alone. But what can be shared will be shared with a good heart, as it helps all peoples come together in harmony.

—Jewell Gillies is Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw of the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw Nation (Ukwana’lis, Kingcome Inlet, B.C.).

Small Group Activity

Divide the participants into small groups and ask each group to consider one or more aspects of the Wellness Wheel to discuss:

  • What stressors might fall under this part of the wheel?
  • How might students behave when they are facing these stressors?
  • What strengths and resilience might students show?
  • Come back and debrief. Some responses may include:
    • Moving
    • Adjusting to university
    • Exams
    • Financial pressure
    • Difficulty finding child care
    • Break-up with a partner or argument with a friend
    • Loneliness or isolation
    • Job interview

Text Attributions

  • This chapter is original text by Jewell Gillies and Barbara Johnston. Added “Mental Wellness,” “Wellness Wheel,” “Resilience,” “Traditional Healing Practices,” “Small Group Activity.”  CC BY 4.0 license.
  • “Dimensions of the Wellness Wheel” text adapted from Okanagan College, (n.d.), Wellness peer ambassador handbook. Kelowna, B.C.: Okanagan College. CC BY 4.0 license.

Media Attributions

  • Wellness Wheel © Jewell Gillies and Amy Haagsma (designer) is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license. All icons licensed as CC BY 4.0 » yoga by zidney from the Noun Project | heart rate by Naufal Hudallah from the Noun Project | Book by Studio TROISQUATRE from the Noun Project | Gears by Gregor Cresnar from the Noun Project | Lotus by Brad Avison from the Noun Project | landscape by Creative Stall from the Noun Project | forest by Creative Stall from the Noun Project | Sea Sunset by Creative Stall from the Noun Project | Park by Creative Stall from the Noun Project | gaining by Alice Design from the Noun Project | Tree by Brian Hurshman from the Noun Project.

  1. Public Health Agency of Canada. (n.d.). Mental health and wellness.


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Capacity to Connect: Supporting Students’ Mental Health and Wellness Copyright © 2021 by Gemma Armstrong; Michelle Daoust; Ycha Gil; Albert Seinen; Faye Shedletzky; Jewell Gillies; Barbara Johnston; and Liz Warwick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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