The mental health of students is challenging in the UK. For example, data collected from FE colleges revealed that 75% of them had referred their students to A&E departments for mental health problems (hereafter MHP) in the last academic year. 85% recognised that the number of students who disclosed their MHP had increased in the past three years, and 81% were aware that there were a significant number of students with undisclosed MHP.
This is no different from HE students. About a quarter of them were estimated to have MHP, and depending on the subject, the situation might be worse (for example, a third of social work students have had a depressive episode and 40% have had suicidal thoughts in their lives).
Poor mental health is itself a serious problem, however it can also lead to various negative consequences: reductions in academic achievement, engagement, creativity and work activities.
For many students, time spent at college or university is important as it prepares them to start their professional career independently. If their learning experience during this time is poor, they can be less prepared, thus hindering their career progression.
What contributes to their poor mental health is their negative attitudes towards MHP. They feel that their family and community see MHP negatively, as something shameful.
My research identified that a large portion of UK students had negative perceptions and shame about MHP. This leads to delayed or non-intervention for their mental distress, which could lead to detrimental clinical outcomes.
Therefore, raising awareness of mental health and acquiring the right information is crucial. Events like Mental Health Awareness Week can help people to learn about mental health and have factual information (instead of just an impression, which can result in stigma and shame): how many people are diagnosed with MHP, the benefits of receiving care at an early phase, etc.
Another implication of our findings about negative mental health attitudes is that perhaps we should approach their poor mental health from a positive psychological perspective. Their engagement with mental health training or events may be low because they feel shame about MHP (this trend was strong among caring subject students; as they have a strong identity as a caregiver, they assume that they should not receive care).
Instead, if we approach it by aiming to enhance positive psychology, they may be more engaged. We have explored several positive psychological constructs such as wellbeing, engagement, intrinsic motivation, resilience and self-compassion. Each construct was related to better mental health, and depending on a moderator, they demonstrated interesting relationships (please see my publications for the details).
What I would like to focus on here is self-compassion; being kind to yourself in difficult times or when faced with your inadequacies. Self-compassion showed a particularly strong relationship with better mental health, and was identified as a key player in the pathways to good mental health. Also, self-compassion can directly counter negative mental health attitudes, as being understanding to yourself can reduce shame, which plays an important role in negative mental health attitudes.
Self-compassion can be cultivated in a variety of ways: as an accredited psychotherapist, I often use imagery exercises with my clients. I let them imagine a situation where they would be kind to themselves, or remember a life event where they were kind to themselves, and let them explore their thoughts and feelings.
For example, I ask clients to imagine a little boy or girl, maybe 6 years old or so, crying in front of them. What would they say to them? What kind of tone of voice? Do they change their body language? What’s their posture like? How do they feel as they say whatever they are saying to him / her?
Once they have explored this for a few minutes, I ask them to imagine those words are said to them, with the same voice tone and the same caring body language. Now how do they feel? This voice is their inner supporter who can reduce their self-criticism and shame. By practicing self-compassion regularly, they are more likely to be able to utilise it when they need it the most.
To conclude this article, Mental Health Awareness Week is a great opportunity for you to learn about mental health and gain the right information, which may help you clear out some of the wrong impressions about MHP. Also, mental health is not just about poor mental health. Enhancing positive psychological constructs such as self-compassion can be useful for gaining better mental health.
I hope you found this article useful. If you want to explore mental health issues in your institution, please let me know.
Yasuhiro Kotera, Academic Lead in Counselling, Psychotherapy & Psychology at the University of Derby