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The left of centre approach: Supporting students’ positive mental health outcomes during lockdown

Akosua Bonsu is Head of Strategic Development and Director of Studies at Regent College London
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#MentalHealth is not an add-on 

Mental health concerns are likely to emerge or to be compounded in lockdown. Being stuck indoors, being unable to see family members, attempting to home educate children, working in frontline services or the financial strain of being furloughed, all add to an unprecedented cocktail of triggers for anxiety and depression.

In this context, educational institutions cannot afford to think of the mental health services that they offer to students as supplementary or optional. At this time, the mental health and the mental wellbeing of students must feature as an integral part of the service each college provides. At Regent College London, one way we have done this is by embedding Thinking into Character, an award winning personal and professional development programme (PPD), into the teaching and learning for all students.

Personal Development and the methodology of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

We do not usually think of PPD in relation to mental health and wellbeing, so how can a PPD programme like Thinking into Character support mental health?

That connection between Thinking into Character and mental health comes via the methodology of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). NHS England describes CBT as follows:

 “Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a talking therapy that can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave. It’s most commonly used to treat anxiety and depression, but can be useful for other mental and physical health problems”. (NHS, 2020)

CBT is essentially a talking therapy rooted in the view that we can change mental health outcomes by changing the way we think. Thinking into Character adopts the methodology of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. The key principle underlying the programme is that we change our results by changing the way we think. To that end, many of the exercises involved Thinking into Character involves shifting thinking, in a manner analogous to CBT programmes. This shift in thinking involves, for example:

  • Shifting your perspective on yourself or your capacities
  • Critical self-reflection and providing some distance between automatic thought processes and reflexive behavior patterns
  • Providing a framework where you take ownership of (and so have full responsibility for) your results

So, even though the Thinking into Character programme is a PPD programme focused on improving results in the academic and professional sphere, it utilizes exactly the same techniques as CBT to make shifts in students awareness that leaves students feeling more resilient, more motivated and more empowered psychologically.  

The left of centre approach: CBT without CBT

The utility of CBT when responding to mental health problems experienced in the classroom cannot be overstated. 

When we encounter mental health problems in the classroom, or suspect them in the digital space, we frequently lack the resources to get in the Freudians.  Psychoanalysis is not going to cut it in further or higher education.

What we need a set of tools that are effective and can be utilized on the ground to deliver results in the shortest amount of time possible. And this is precisely why CBT has flourished in medical professions: It’s effective. It’s quick. It’s resource efficient.

But while many of us are aware of CBT as an excellent response to a student facing mental health challenges, there is an additional option hinted at through Thinking into Character. We can consider programmes with a PPD focus that utilize the same methodology as CBT, as a preventative measure to support mental health outcomes. This is a point to which we will return.

CBT in the guise of personal development

In the case of Thinking into Character, there are 12 lessons in total, and each is hosted on the digital platform Associated with each lesson, there is a student handbook, which contain exercises relating to the video lesson. The programme covers a very wide range of topics within the general category of self-development.

Themes relating to mental health include:

  • How to bridge the gap between intention and action
  • Understanding the power and influence of the subconscious mind on behaviour
  • How to overcome a negative self image
  • How to respond to failure and the anxiety that comes from setting challenging goals
  • How to identify negative behaviour patters and replace these with more positive and pro-active habits

Each of these topics could be useful for a student who is finding it difficult to motivate herself or himself or a student who ruminates over negative thoughts or experiences depression or low self-esteem. These topics are likewise useful for a student who has a fear of failure or a student with negative and self-disruptive habits. That is to say, each of these lessons has a direct mental health relation without itself being a mental health and wellbeing topic. A programme like this can improve mental health outcomes because a students thinking about each of these subject will pave the way to their development of more positive habits of thought and behavior.

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Build resilience, build character

I don’t want to look at the wider content of lessons for Thinking into Character, because it is not particularly relevant to our focus on mental health, but I do want to say something here about the notion of character, and character building, which is central to the programme.

There is a resurgent interest in the notion of character education in the UK. The newly published Ofsted Framework (May 2019) now states that schools have a duty to support the character development of their pupils. Alongside this, the Department of Education produced the Character Education Framework guidance document (Nov. 2019)

While the policy focus/direction is not FE/HE, it is useful to keep an eye out to what is going on in the wider field of education. In my view this new focus on character, and particularly resilience, is directly related to the rise in mental health challenges faced by young people in primary and secondary education, which are essentially rippling through now into further and higher education.

Here is not the time to explore this thought in great detail, suffice it to say that the focus on character development as an early intervention and preventative measure in respect to mental health looks like it’s going to be important moving forward from a policy perspective. It is therefore useful for FE/HE institution in the UK to include character education as a creative way to increase resilience and minimize mental distress amount students.

Direct and indirect prevention

If this point isn’t already clear, it is worth stating explicitly that the primary aim of Thinking into Character is not to secure a mental health outcome. I know of no PPD programme whose primary aim is to secure a mental health outcome, and should one exist, such a programme would surely have been mislabeled.

PPD of any kind is not an appropriate response to a student who presents with a mental health problem. Not least because giving students a generic personal and professional development programme in response to a specific mental health concern simply neglects the particularity of the response needed for that student at the precise moment in time at which the concern is raised.  

The point here is rather that Personal and professional development programmes that utilize the methodology of CBT can have positive mental health results indirectly. That’s because these lessons are encouraging students to shift their perspective, create some distance between their actions and responses, reflect on and improve their self-image and so on.

To sum up: It is because of this connection to CBT methodology that Thinking into Character holds weight as a preventative measure, which works indirectly to promote mental health outcomes.

Drawing some take home messages about our use of Thinking into Character & student mental health and well being

With the advent of Covid-19, mental health risk factors are raised. The challenge is to respond positively to this increase by putting services in place that can support mental health and wellbeing outcomes.

If you are thinking of making provision for some mental health programmes as part of teaching and learning, you can look at things sideways. Nothing can replace a bespoke mental health offering weighted towards CBT, but you can indirectly help students to improve their mental health outcomes through PPD or CPD options that utilize a CBT methodology

If the indirect mode of travel is of interest, in other words, if you decide to include your own bespoke CPD or PPD programme into the teaching and learning, here are 5 things to look for in a programme that will assist or improve mental health outcomes:

  • A programme that develops self reflective practices, and encourages students to examine reflexive behaviours that may yield negative results
  • A programme that develops resilience, this could be resilience in the workplace, as these skills can often be directly redirected to the personal sphere
  • A programme that motivates and inspires students to focus on their abilities and to review their current inabilities as “not-yets”
  • A programme that encourages thinking that builds distance/disassociation with negative results, allowing students a space to reflect objectively on building the skills required to overcome challenges
  • A programme that encourages creative expression and positive thinking

A programme with these features will support positive mental health outcomes, but it will require us to think a little more broadly and a little more creatively about how we support students mental health during lockdown.

Akosua Bonsu

Akosua Bonsu is Head of Strategic Development and Director of Studies at Regent College London, she is writing in a personal capacity

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