Authors: Catherine McConnell, Aidan Davis, and Michelle Butler – University of Brighton

We’ve recently finished another exhilarating round of Changing Mindset workshops for staff here across the University of Brighton. Each workshop stimulating discussions on an exhaustive list of topics and connections that staff from many areas of the university raise and debate with us, and each other. The workshops appear to provide staff with a safe space to reflect, share experiences, raise questions and air anxieties about their teaching, and about their genuine concern for supporting students to the best of their capability. One workshop particularly stands out for us, as we sensed the urgency in the room for academic and support staff to turn their attention to the topic of student mental health and wellbeing. This has challenged our project team to examine the relationship between Changing Mindsets and mental health, and explore strategies for supporting staff and students.

We invite you now into our conversation, where we grapple with some of the key themes surrounding student mental health and supporting students in times of need. Aidan is a recent graduate from BA(Hons) Education, currently working on a graduate internship scheme with the Student Academic Success and Partnership team in the Centre for Learning and Teaching. Catherine is a senior lecturer in learning and teaching and part of the Changing Mindsets project team at Brighton. Michelle is a Learning Support Coordinator in the Disability and Dyslexia Team, Student Services.

Aidan: Being aware that mental health problems can have a huge negative impact on an individuals’ life, necessary steps must be taken. Mental health will present itself differently on an individual basis, but the key signs are usually similar. Being mindful of what mental health looks like in students and then knowing how to support the individual can be incredibly effective in keeping that student at university, and more importantly have a huge positive impact on their lives. These signs usually present themselves as changes in emotions, lack of attendance, engagement and motivation.


Michelle: I’d agree, and would say to staff – don’t be scared of responding. Whilst you are not a counsellor or social worker in your role, you are a human being and therefore can provide a listening ear and support (within your limits and boundaries). I cannot tell you how relieved students of all ages feel when their course leader or tutor responds with kindness and understanding. Don’t assume that all latecomers are ‘slackers’ that cannot be bothered to learn. You have no idea what the student is actually dealing with in their lives.


Aidan: You’re so right, having someone notice and providing support (whether that is a referral to someone with the necessary skills) can make the difference from feeling isolated, alone and failing to accept support, …to finding comfort, realising that there is help which in turn can help students to find inner peace and to try new solutions to find the best possible ways for them to overcome their barriers.


Catherine: Do you have a specific piece of advice that you would give to say, an academic colleague, who is providing support to students in distress?


Michelle: The first thing I would say is make a point of knowing what support is out there for students both within Student Services and locally. All Schools have an SSGT (Student Support and Guidance Tutor) who should be familiar with local services. Look out for training opportunities, or ask the Disability and Dyslexia Team to come and deliver training to your team. Secondly, adopt a more collegial approach to learning (bearing in mind that some international students may bring with them a different mindset). Support students to tolerate and manage academic adversity (e.g. not getting that 2:1 first time around). Remember, many of us ‘older’ people have had plenty of opportunities to work, engage with the adult world, play outside and take ourselves to school from an early age. This taught us plenty about how to fall down and get up again. We were not under the same pressure to get perfect grades or to have a perfect body and a perfect life without the requisite life skills to manage this expectation.


Catherine: Michelle, during the Changing Mindsets staff workshop that you attended, the teaching staff expressed some significant anxieties around student mental health. Some were saying that students are presenting mental health issues that are really challenging the way they approach teaching and supporting students. Do you have any advice for academic staff about supporting students with their mental health in the teaching environment?


Michelle: Encourage students to share their failures as this helps to build resilience in the face of adversity. Perhaps even share your own failures once in a while. Importantly, look after yourself too! Set limits and stick to them. Say no when you have to. Stay positive and keep hope for the future.


Catherine: Aidan, could using the growth mindset model help raise student and staff awareness of building resilience, re-framing study strategies and the way we approach learning and teaching?


Aidan: Mindsets help give us an understanding of our world which can enable us to respond and cope with setbacks we may face in our lives. Mental health problems can often make an individual fixed in their own mindset and sets the scene in feeling unable to cope, shutting out the world and isolating oneself regardless of anything that you may try. Breaking the cycle feels virtually impossible which can lead to greater health issues. Having a growth mindset has the potential to instil a positive ‘can-do’ attitude, and can be the positive mental attitude needed for change in thinking and behaviour. Knowing that students can adapt their thinking after issues arise by seeking the support and guidance which is provided can be a key way of enabling coping strategies. These strategies might then feed forward into better handling of future mental health problems and distress.


Catherine: And finally, what advice would you give a student who might be struggling with some of the issues we’ve raised here in our conversation?


Aidan: Try and see it as opportunity over obstacles: adopting and playing with growth mindsets can allow for flexible thinking patterns in order to become less rigid and to allow resilience to grow. I am aware that this type of thinking can create opportunities for growth and development, instilling confidence and the thought of possibility, instead of allowing these problems to get out of control and feeling unable. Furthermore, creating small achievable goals can sometimes keep you motivated when faced with negative feelings about your studies. Sometimes the smallest tasks can feel impossible. Therefore, setting reasonable and manageable goals can help with motivation and can provide a sense of calm and personal achievement. Finally, reflection has provided me the opportunity to take a moment out of my day to think about my actions, and I really try and do this in a non-judgemental way. Reflection can remind you of your self-worth, self-realisation, and can be a positive way to set new goals and manage your own headspace, allowing you to see the obstacles which life may present you and perhaps turning some of these into your biggest opportunities.

If you are interested in some of the issues raised by Aidan, Catherine and Michelle, or to contribute your thoughts to our conversation please do comment, or contact us directly. You might also be interested in a report published yesterday, January 29th 2018 by Student Minds, on Student Mental Health: The Role and Experiences of Academics.

Disclaimer:  the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this blog post belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the values of the University of Portsmouth or the extended Partnership.

Opportunity over obstacles: the role of mindsets and student mental health

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