Time is a great healer: how can academics contribute to students’ mental wellbeing?

Every day at work is a race against the clock and in my case, the clock often wins! There was a time (excuse the pun) when this caused me no end of stress and anxiety, but not anymore…. Why? Because I’ve learnt through experience that nothing horrendous happens as a result. More importantly, I’ve developed shedloads of strategies (prioritising, action planning, list making etc…..) for managing my time effectively. Indeed, of necessity, I’ve become quite the expert, as have many of you no doubt. This puts us in a fortunate position: effective time management has been found to protect against ‘job strain’ and resultant mental health problems (see Burgard and Lin (2013) for a review of the impact of work on health).

What has all this to do with promoting students’ mental wellbeing you ask? Well, rather a lot as it happens. There’s a great deal that can be achieved by academics, and with little effort and minimal resources. A mere cursory glance at recent student mental health research (see YouGov and NUS survey results below for example) reveals not only a problem on the increase but also a noticeable association between mental health problems and student workload/demands, which is where the connection lies: either we’re placing too many demands on students, failing to equip them with effective time management strategies, or both…. One thing’s for certain – we need to explore these issues as a matter of urgency.

According to a recent survey (YouGov, 2016):

  • More than a quarter (27%) of students in UK universities report having a mental health problem of some kind.
  • Females are more likely than males to say they have a mental health problem (34% vs 19%).
  • The problem is particularly high amongst LGBT students (45% LGBT vs 22% heterosexual).
  • Depression and anxiety are the most common reported problems (77% and 74%).

What a sad and shameful state of affairs: so many students suffering mental distress, and at a time when they should be enjoying life and living it to the full. After all, aren’t the years spent in university meant to be the best years of our lives? Hardly the case for at least 27% of higher education students if the results of the YouGov survey are anything to go by! Moreover, as well as the day to day strain of functioning brought about by mental distress, it also puts students at increased risk of poor academic performance and of leaving university (Crust et al, 2014) and so has the capacity to reduce quite significantly their chances of realising their full potential in life. Much worse of course is that students with mental health problems are at increased risk of committing suicide.  In fact, student suicides rose by 79 per cent (from 75 – 134) between 2007 and 2015 (Thorley, 2017). This is something we need to consider when attempting to support our students in managing their work loads.

What makes students depressed and anxious?

Being a young person doesn’t help….which of course the vast majority of higher education students are. Young adults are, by definition, more at risk of developing mental health problems. It’s a well-known fact that around 75% of adults with mental illness had their first symptoms before the age of 25 (Thorley, 2017).  Students though have more risk of developing mental health problems than their peers. Why? In 2013 the National Union of Students put this question to several hundred students.  Below is what they identified as the main triggers of mental distress (NUS, 2013):

  • Course workload deadlines (65%)
  • Exams, including revision (54%)
  • Balancing study and other commitments (52%)
  • Grades/academic performance (52%)
  • Personal, family or relationship problems (49%)
  • Financial difficulties (47%)

How can we help our students to win their race against the clock and thereby contribute positively to their mental wellbeing?

Helping students free up more time is one sure way we can promote their mental wellbeing, not to mention the knock on effects! So why not commit to two simple tasks as a starting point (that’s assuming you haven’t done so already of course):

  1. Scope the collective academic workload demands being placed on students by your course team – does this need to be reduced (I’m not suggesting dumbing down academic challenge here)?
  1. Establish from relevant research effective ways to teach time management and put these into practice. You may not always feel that this is your role, or the purpose of your modules, but the better students can manage their work load the more likely they are to engage and to realise their true potential.

Pam Dewis is Head of Student Employability in the Department of Education, Childhood & Inclusion

 

References:

Burgard, S. and Lin, K. (2013). Bad Jobs, Bad health? How Work and Working Conditions Contribute to Health Disparities. American Behavioral Scientist, 57(8), pp.1105-1127. doi: 10.1177/0002764213487347

Crust, L., Earle, K., Perry, J, Earle, F., Clough, A. and Clough, P. (2014). Mental toughness in higher education: Relationships with achievement and progression in first year university sports students. Personality and Individual Differences 69, 87-91. doi: org/10.1016/j.paid.2014.05.016

NUS Services Limited (2013). Mental Distress Survey Overview. [pdf]. Retrieved from https://www.nus.org.uk/Global/Campaigns/20130517%20Mental%20Distress%20Survey%20%20Overview.pdf

Thorley, C. (2017). Not by degrees: improving student mental health in UK universities. [pdf]. Retrieved from https://www.ippr.org/research/publications/not-by-degrees

YouGov (2016). One in four students suffers from mental health problems. Retrieved from https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/08/09/quarter-britains-students-are-afflicted-mental-hea/