Home Opinion column Educators instrumental in promoting student mental wellbeing on campus

Educators instrumental in promoting student mental wellbeing on campus

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Dr Pooja Mohanty

Universities, institutions and colleges are witnessing a steep rise in mental illness and emotional distress for years but more so after the Covid-19 pandemic. Typically, adolescents are confronted with profound changes encompassing not only physical maturation, but the emergence of an autonomous self, rejection, parental authority, increased responsibilities socially and academically, and a desire for intimacy with others. Therefore they maybe at increased risk of experiencing high levels of depressive, anxiety and stress syndromes as compared other age group people. This year as we celebrate World Mental Health day on 10th October our focus is on youth and students as they restructure the society with their thoughts, emotions and actions.

Wellbeing and mental health are fundamental to student success and their holistic functioning. Enhancing student wellbeing requires whole-of-institution approach and pedagogical innovations that improve mental health and wellbeing. This will help in enabling students not only to realize their highest academic potential but also to drive them closer to their meaning and purpose of this life. An integrated approach by the institutional leadership, campus mental health professionals, faculty, students and staff is essential to identify both internal campus sources and external sources of crisis for students.

A state of wellbeing is more than just absence of mental disorders and encompasses experiences associated with personal growth, intrinsic motivation, positive relationships, autonomy and competence. Therefore the mission of higher education should be to develop a holistic being who is physically and mentally adept to take on the life crisis and develop resilience in the process.

Academics can play a crucial role in fostering student whole growth and well-being. It is also because academic curriculum gives coherence to student life. Academic educators are the ones who design and deliver the curriculum. Therefore there is great potential for academic teachers to foster student mental well-being through teaching, innovation and the intentional design of learning environments that could be resource rich for students. Supporting student mental health doesn’t mean that educators have to essentially become psychologists or mental health professionals as it may not be their job to make students happy or help students resolve their mental distress. However it is their job to facilitate student learning, adopt assessment approaches informed by psychological principles and research that may help to mitigate psychological stressors in the environment. Good mental health is essential for effective learning therefore applying these approaches may make holistic growth of a student possible.

In the current situation the above may sound easy but hard doing due to structural conditions in higher education. Under-funding, online mode of teaching, evaluation, increasing student numbers, mass delivery, increasing workloads, insecurity also undermines the mental wellbeing of teachers and academic staff. These all count up to challenges that the university and colleges face but if an integrated approach is adopted in employing techniques for whole of university growth, there can be hope.

Student wellbeing may involve engaging curricula, creating supportive environments, community awareness, disseminating knowledge, skills, and providing access to services. Good curriculum design is about designing learning activities that engage students in their deep and creative learning. Encouraging students to build on their prior learning, providing real life experiences, encouraging students to make meaning of their experiences and understand the world, driving them close to their goals, interests, values, enabling them to apply knowledge, practice skills, promote peer interaction and provide students with opportunities to self-evaluate their learning. 

Designing a curriculum that is supportive of student mental health requires few steps. Instead of normative grading, competency assessments and feedback can be adopted. Greater flexibility should be encouraged for approaching their tasks or topics and restructuring the traditional curriculum content. Reducing contact hours to increase personal time and other commitments, equipping students to manage stress, uncertainty, unknowns and conflicts, encouraging students to find meaning, purpose, wisdom and positivity to their tasks assigned can lead them to empowerment in managing stressors.

Mental health difficulties may often impair the student’s aptitude to perform or complete their tasks successfully. Although it is not an academic teacher’s role to directly manage or counsel distressed students, they can take on the responsibility to help students to manage the effects of mental health difficulties by referrals. Identifying their signs being the first step through keen observation on students appearing to be disengaged, overwhelmed or emotionally fragile,  underperforming, or being unable to cope with challenging atmosphere, exhibiting high levels of anxiety, feeling isolated and disconnected.

Teachers acting as gatekeepers for referrals to mental health professionals can be the first preventive step. Referral is necessary in the following situation.

  • Students exhibiting behaviour that may be of imminent danger to self and others.
  • Unknown as to what options are available to students.
  • Teachers may feel, overwhelmed, and cannot stop thinking of personal circumstances of students.
  • As teachers they would like to talk as to how you wish to manage situation in the classroom.

 Psychologically distressed students mostly approach the teachers for advice support and may disclose their personal difficulties and these exchanges can be highly uncomfortable. The exhibition of emotions can be overwhelming and take form of tears, despair, demands, obsession or aggression. The content can be disturbing including accounts of sexual or domestic violence, conflict, trauma, deaths, loss, or self-harm. While there is no single best approach for responding to these it is good to be clear about your role as an academic teacher as to what can offered and what cannot be offered and what is appropriate.

As academic teachers it is best to follow some guided practice in form of do’s and don’ts.

Do’s

  1. The students should be motivated and ready to accept help, they should not be rushed or pushed.
  2. Ensuring privacy in terms of time and place with limited interruptions in conversations.
  3. Students may not find right words to express emotions or their situations, such cases paraphrasing and attentive listening is best.
  4. It is good not to undermine or disregard any signs or feelings of students.
  5. Keep it open for students to choose the help or support you wish to provide in terms of referral.
  6. Suggesting options, encourage them to seek help and keeping in close touch with the therapist on campus makes the task fluid to enact upon.

Don’t

  1. Don’t promise confidentiality if student shows up with self-harm or suicidal thoughts. It should be a practice in other circumstances.
  2. Don’t analyze student’s motives (for example, “you are making issues because you are unable to submit your assignment on deadline”.)
  3. Don’t argue, lecture, ridicule or minimize their experiences (“I think you are overreacting”)
  4. Don’t ask questions that implies judgment or blame. (“why dint you tell this to anyone before?”)
  5. Don’t share your own experiences of trauma, abuse, grief and loss. (“I went through the same years before and got out of it”)
  6. Don’t attempt to physically console or comfort a student by holding their hand or hugging them

As educators our mission and vision of higher education is to develop a holistic student adept physically and mentally to take on success and failures on same stride. As Rupert Brooke puts it so eloquently, is our higher education completely evading key issues of life leaving our young students “magnificently unprepared for the long littleness of life?” The dreams of our brightest and best students are ones that have consciously ingrained in them by social conditioning by parents and teachers. It’s time to work towards education being a higher dimension of awakening rather being a progressive discovery of our ignorance.

(Author is Psychotherapist, at XLRI, Jamshedpur. She holds a PhD from the Department of Psychiatric Social Work, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore, India. She has recently done a fellow teachers training on Mindfulness Cognitive Behaviour therapy from Oxford University, UK. The views expressed are personal opinion of the author.)

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