The university experience in 2020 and 2021 has been vastly different than any student and teacher could ever have imagined…
Endless Zoom lectures, reduced peer support, job and financial worry, the stress of exams, and overwhelm of adjusting to a new way of learning. Not to mention more time spent alone than we’re used to. All of these things can absolutely make students of the last couple of years feel like they’ve lost out on so many parts of the university experience — the right of passage for so many.
That’s why our qualified mental health first aid trainer and Wellbeing Manager, Kerry B Mitchell, is sharing her insight into how she thinks teachers, lecturers, mentors, and university bodies can play a big role in shaping the way we approach student mental health over the coming months… And how they should also consider their own wellbeing as part of such a widespread change to education.
“I understand that those teaching their students are already under immense pressure to get things right, to deliver their usual physical lectures via an online system that frankly has never been used to this extent before. Alongside this extra workload, there is also an amplified focus on the duty of care towards students, given the sad rise in mental and physical ill health during the pandemic.
“People aged 18–24 reported worse mental health and wellbeing during the 2020 UK lockdowns, with almost 75 per cent saying their mental health declined during lockdown. That’s a huge proportion of the classroom, yet it’s a part of us all that’s still not talked about in the same capacity as our physical health and wellbeing.
“Mental health was important before the pandemic, but even more so now, so it’s vital we take steps to learn how we can support students at such a crucial point in their lives. Healthcare and wellbeing services have been suspended or vastly reduced, and students have lost part time jobs which would keep them financially afloat during university. It could be easy to see how so many feel completely unsupported with no obvious means of help.
“So from a duty of care perspective, much of the conversation has to be started with those who are teaching them. But what I want to absolutely convey is that simply starting an open conversation about mental health doesn’t have to detract from coursework, existing obligations and already mounting to-do lists. If it feels like a chore and will inevitably result in more work for you, it’s not being approached in the right way.
On top of the already stressful student life, they may be experiencing these common thoughts and feelings, according to MIND:
- Concerned by lockdown measures having a negative impact on their mental health.
- Unsupported by the university and peers when help and reassurance is needed.
- Sad or angry that they can’t make new or see current friends at university.
- Overwhelmed by having to adjust to new working environments, teaching methods and routines.
- Stressed about the impact on their finances (particularly their fees and loans).
- Uncertain about their future and job prospects (also worrying about completing studies).
- Stigmatised or unfairly judged by people who have seen negative images of students in the media.
- Disappointed by how the university life isn’t meeting expectations.
“How can you as a teacher support your students going through these emotions? You don’t need to be a qualified mental health first aider, a counsellor, or a qualified therapist. Quite often, the simple act of talking about mental health — asking how someone is really doing — is enough to show students that you’re listening, that you care, that you’re there to talk to if they need support, and that you’re a trusted figure. Don’t know how to start the conversation? This is how simple it can be:
- Ask twice | When you deliver your zoom lectures, do you start with diving straight into coursework? Try taking just two minutes out beforehand to ask how everyone is doing. Ask them to rate their mental health on a private chat using a scale of 1-10. Anything below a 5 or 6 — what can you do to help? Is there a part of the coursework they’re struggling with? A way of working that could be improved — such as using a buddy system within the class to support one another? Or are they simply having a natural ‘off’ day or week? Take the time to listen to your students and reassure them that they are not alone. Signposting to other services should be present at any university, so do recommend them if students show signs that they need additional support which you or the university can’t deal with directly. There are so many services available even during the pandemic, such as GP 24/7 telephone services, mental health charities, and counselling services for anything that might be affecting their university work such as financial worry, anxiety, stress, and relationship problems.
“Taking care of our bodies is also something that is within our control. Leading by example is a fantastic way to improve morale and motivation — tell your students on your next break that you’re going for a walk and encourage those who haven’t used their daily exercise to do the same. After all, they’re digesting a lot of information within the same four walls, and fresh air to process it all is a great habit to get into.
“Consider how much human interaction they’re getting. Yes, you have coursework to deliver and videocalls are a natural part of this, but why not ask your students to buddy with someone else in their class to complete a task? Working in pairs or groups can help to alleviate some of the feelings that they’re in this alone, plus it can help break up their day.
Your mental health as a teacher
“But remember: it’s not just students that may need a little support. Coronavirus is having an effect on us all, including you as a teacher. That’s why it’s not only important for you to be looking for ways in which they can support the mental health of your students, but also for yourselves too.
“Teaching over video has to bring about its own challenges — not knowing how your students are reacting to your work and delivery of lectures or being able to quickly chat to them face-to-face to see how they’re coping. It’s a completely new way of delivering education and navigating yourself through it can take its toll on you too.
“Consider any support that you might need — do you have the right tools to be able to effectively deliver coursework and lectures, and if not, who can help? Does the university have mental health support, such as an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), in place for staff and can you easily access it?
“EAPs are hugely useful tools for employees and can be used for anything that might be impacting your work — whether it’s financial problems, legal issues, family disputes, stress, depression or grief, confidential support can be provided 24/7.
“Another thing to ask your university is whether you and your colleagues can access mental health training to help you spot any signs of poor mental health amongst your students and your colleagues. There are a range of options available from half day sessions over zoom to more in-depth two-day courses.
“As part of my role with Paycare, my entire role is focused on helping people of all backgrounds and ages, including many in higher education, to understand mental health better, to feel more equipped to openly talk about mental health, as well as to effectively support those who may be struggling.
“On this year’s University Mental Health Day, let’s open up the conversation about mental health and remember that it is not a bad thing — it’s something that we all have and could all improve in some way. We need recognise that our mental health is important, not just now, but in the months and years ahead.”
Here’s to a better and brighter time for all students and teachers as lockdown restrictions begin to ease – we’re not quite sure what the ‘new normal’ will look like for all of us, but there is plenty of support out there if you need it 🧡
Stay safe! 😊