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MSU health promotion trailblazer reflects on over three decades of building capacity for health

Dennis Martell in the MSU Audio Studios
Russ White | MSU Today
Dennis Martell in the MSU Audio Studios

MSU health promotion guru Dennis Martell is retiring this summer following an impactful career promoting wellness among the MSU community.

Martell reflects on his almost 40 years evolving health promotion initiatives at MSU. He describes how students have changed over the years, and he shares some of his fondest memories from his MSU career. He discusses the challenges and opportunities awaiting his successor and talks about the mission of The National Social Norms Center at Michigan State University.

Conversation Highlights:

(1:20) – “I remember in ninth grade I saw a report that said, ‘this Dennis Martell will not go very far because of his disabilities,’ and I took that as a challenge.”

(4:03) – “And I came down to East Lansing and gave a speech. And in the audience were three professors from MSU who came up and said ‘Hey, how would you like to come to MSU and get your PhD?’”

(6:08) – “As several different administrators say I’m either a radical, an activist, or an advocate.”

(6:53) – “I got my second master’s here, and I got my PhD here. I love this place. It gave me the opportunity to look at the culture and the environment. When I was offered the job in health promotion, I wanted to see if I could help change the culture.”

Russ White, Dennis Martell
MSU Today
Russ White, Dennis Martell

(8:06) – “Health is really the capacity you have at any given time to be in this world, to interact with the world, and give back to the world. Health is a measure of capacity. And what is capacity? Capacity is the ability – or skills and energy – to do something, see something, or experience something.”

(9:41) – “What is the meaning of health? Really what it comes down to is freedom. The ultimate freedom is health.”

(12:06) – “Health promotion is about increasing the capacity, supporting the capacity, and restoring the capacity in individuals. I consider myself a capacity builder, and you can do that in so many ways.”

(13:17) – “This generation now does not know how to deal with fear or threats.”

(16:33) – “Mental health is one of the increasing challenges. But so is financial, housing, and food insecurity.”

(17:43) – “Let’s treat alcohol as a health issue. Not a legal issue. Not a moral issue.”

(19:00) – “We take that behavior, and we give it back to them. We tell them what they do. We don’t tell them what to do. That changed the perception and then the behavior.”

(20:15) – “Some of the people in this generation have lost common sense.”

(23:37) – “If you drink one type of alcohol and you stay in one place and you stay with friends, you’re less likely to experience any harm when you’re celebratory drinking.”

(30:50) – “We create an environment that’s conducive for learning. We don’t educate people. We provide the environment. That’s the same thing we need to do with health. We need to provide an environment so people can find their capacity.”

(32:19) – “Once you are a Spartan and embrace the fundamental principles of a land grant institution, you judge the health of a community by its capacity to be good and caring. That’s what it’s really all about.”

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