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Mental Health Awareness Month Guest Blog from ACL’s RRTC on Community Living and Participation for People with Serious Mental Illness

May 23, 2022
By Kyra H. Baker, Research and Intervention Coordinator

Rehabilitation Research and Training Center (RRTC) programs, funded by ACL’s National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research, conduct advanced research and training to improve health, employment, and community living outcomes for people with disabilities. RRTCs also serve as a network of information hubs to connect researchers, service providers and people with disabilities to the rehabilitation research. As the RRTC on community living and participation for people with serious mental illness, the Collaborative for Community Inclusion at Temple University focuses on research and knowledge-development activities that lead to interventions to help people with serious mental health conditions participate fully and meaningfully in their communities.

For example, the RRTC is studying the effectiveness of a promising peer support intervention that uses photovoice to promote campus engagement by college students with serious mental health conditions. Photovoice is a process in which participants capture their experiences and observations in photographs and discuss them with other participants. Created in 1992 as a tool for social change, photovoice has been shown to have an empowering effect on participants and has been adapted for a wide variety of interventions and research projects.

In the RRTC study, which began in 2018 and has recruited half of their study sample, college students with serious mental health conditions take photos over six weeks each fall and spring semester. The pictures represent their current or desired engagement on campus, barriers to engagement, and things that facilitate engagement. Students share their photos, along with a caption, for discussion on a private social media page. This online community allows students to connect with and support each other day to day throughout the semester. Three “meetups” each semester, facilitated by an interventionist with a background in recreational therapy, offer the students opportunities to connect in-person or virtually.

In this guest post for Mental Health Awareness Month, Kyra H. Baker, Research and Intervention Coordinator for the RRTC, shares more about the project.


Photovoice and Campus Engagement of College Students with Significant Mental Health Issues

By Kyra H. Baker, Research and Intervention Coordinator

Collaborative for Community Inclusion at Temple University

(ACL’s RRTC on Community Living and Participation for People with Serious Mental Illness)


Education is crucial to employment, and individuals with significant mental health issues have much lower educational attainment than the general population. Research conducted by the Temple University RRTC indicates that campus engagement among college students with mental health issues, just like for other students, is critical to academic success (see references below). Campus supports need to go beyond a focus on symptom reduction and accommodations and expand to include helping students integrate and connect to others on campus.

I am the co-designer of an intervention we are studying that aims to support college students with significant mental health conditions in increasing their campus engagement in areas that are meaningful to them. The intervention is inspired by photovoice methods and involves participants sharing photos related to campus engagement to create a dialogue about what they are doing or want to do and barriers and facilitators of campus engagement. I ask students to keep this in mind when taking their photos: “Think about your ideal week as a college student—focus on those activities outside of the classroom. What do you most want for yourself? Where do you want to spend your time? What is standing in the way? What would help you get there?”

There have been many memorable photos. One student shared a photo of a bowl of cereal and through the dialogue with other students it became clear that this was significant because it represented the first time the student had gone to the campus dining hall—an activity she had been ‘working up the courage’ to do. Her peers responded with words of encouragement and celebratory emojis.

Last year, during the pandemic, a student shared a photo of the corner of a chair in a student lounge. This student had talked about how he longed to hang out in the student lounge with other students in his major, to casually discuss what projects everyone was working on, and to feel a part of things.

During our final gathering of the year he joined the zoom meeting from that lounge and his peers stumbled over one another to ask: ‘Hey!...where are you?… are you in the lounge??”

“Yess!” he said, “I’m at my place! I’m home.”

I will never forget the sights and sounds of that joyful moment and many others that have occurred through this study.


  • Victoria Jeffries & Mark S. Salzer (2021) Mental health symptoms and academic achievement factors, Journal of American College Health, DOI: 10.1080/07448481.2020.1865377
  • Mark S. Salzer PhD (2012) A Comparative Study of Campus Experiences of College Students With Mental Illnesses Versus a General College Sample, Journal of American College Health, 60:1, 1-7, DOI: 10.1080/07448481.2011.552537

Last modified on 05/23/2022

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