Overview of the project
Recent research in Europe and Australia has drawn significant attention to the increased prevalence of psychological distress (a commonly used indicator for mental health) in PhD students. Evidence shows that PhD students experience higher levels of stress compared with undergraduate students and the general population. This leads to increased withdrawal rates, longer completion times and the risk of longer term effects on mental health and wellbeing. Whilst the types of challenges that PhD students face have been identified, very little is known about how these vary across the student journey and this makes it difficult to design appropriate interventions.
Book-ended by puberty and culturally defined adult roles, it is now argued that adolescence extends from age 10 to age 24. Consequently, higher education institutions must take into account that the majority (88% in 2017/2018) (Higher Education Authority, 2018) of their undergraduate students are still adolescents, with cognitive, social, emotional and self-regulatory capacities that are not yet fully mature. However, the role of “adult learner” is typically conferred on third-level students, requiring them to be organised, motivated and largely self-directed in their studies, as well as having greater responsibility for managing their own finances, leisure activities and self-care, including meal preparation and sleep, all of this within a socio-cultural environment that offers less external regulation than ever before.
"It is incredibly important to tackle mental health stigma and discrimination at school, college and university: fear of negative reactions to their mental illness stops 32% of young people with a mental health problem applying for further education.” (Time to Change campaign run by Mind and Rethink Mental Health)
University is not always the fun place where many students expect to experience ‘the time of their life.’ Nor do they automatically cope with a new way of working, especially having come from an educational institution where their teachers have been relentlessly spoon-feeding knowledge in the hope of securing examination results that satisfy Ofsted. Coping with parental expectations, fear of failure, living away from home or in another country, making new relationships and sudden financial pressures can become overwhelming.
King's Sport is a department within King's College London that has the ambition of being the Most Active University in London - we operate across London with 3 Health & Fitness Facilities located in 3 different Boroughs of London in addition to a Physical Activity Programme that spans across all of King's Campuses and Student Residence Locations
The Active Wellness Scheme has been developed to help anyone within the King’s College London Community who suffers from any mental or physical health issues improve their overall wellbeing by helping them to become more active and by make better lifestyle choices.
Those on the scheme receive a free 6-week gym membership with access to all classes and four 1-2-1 sessions with a Coach who will provide them with a personalised gym programme and ongoing support. This will develop their exercise skills by improving their experience and their knowledge in the gym and to understand how training can be utilised to improve their overall wellbeing.
The first SMaRteN ‘mini-sandpit’ event held on 13th March 2019 represented an invaluable opportunity for a diverse network of stakeholders to consider and discuss what is distinctive about student mental health. Michael Priestley and Katie Tyrrell, representing the SMaRteN student-led research team, summarise and reflect on the day…
Alyson Dodd, Senior Research Fellow at Northumbria University, began by introducing SMaRteN and the objectives of the sandpit. Alyson started from a conceptualisation of student mental health as existing on a continuum with wellbeing. The importance of using consistent, reliable and meaningful measures, indicators and outcomes was emphasised. This is essential in order to understand distinctive ‘student’ risk factors; track and monitor students requiring support; and evaluate the effectiveness of support strategies within a whole-university approach.
I am a Research Fellow based in the NIHR MindTech Medtech Co-Operative research group in the School of Medicine, University of Nottingham. Mindtech is a national centre focusing on the development, adoption and evaluation of new technologies for mental healthcare and dementia. I works on projects relating to evaluating digital technologies for children and young people’s mental health. One of my main interests lies with using digital technologies to support university students’ mental health – for example, how online programmes may be used by universities and counselling services to support their students’ mental health.
Generally, men are more reluctant to seek mental health support than women. These findings remain consistent across younger adults and particularly university students. Thus, male students are a particularly vulnerable group. To overcome this, my PhD is centred around developing an intervention for male university students aiming to improve their willingness to seek psychological support. Over the next 3 years, I plan to identify key features within interventions that may encourage male students to seek mental health support, collaborate with male students to help develop an appropriate/feasible intervention, and to lastly pilot this intervention with male students at KCL.
Ilyas Sagar-Ouriaghli, NIHR PhD Student, King’s College London
Medical cultural anthropology
While studying veterinary medicine in France, I developed a strong interest in medical anthropology, based in an understanding that the health and disease of humans and other animals are constructed, debated and politicised notions. This is why, after my training as a veterinarian epidemiologist, I further explored the social dimensions of global public health issues and interventions. This was done through a project in Thailand, researching village-based social networks around poultry disease surveillance. I then worked on worldwide knowledge flows in collaborative research on Nipah virus (a virus transmitted to people by bats) for my master’s degree in Science Policy.
Universities are starting to run surveys to monitor the wellbeing of their student populations. These are powerful resources that will enable us, in time, to test whether student mental health is changing. For example, whether a current cohort of students are more likely than previous ones at a particular institution to be anxious or depressed. The data could also be used to track student trajectories as they progress through their university years, allowing interventions to be targeted at times and groups of greatest need.
"But we’re lecturers, not therapists!”
In my area of work, I encounter this objection on a fairly regular basis and my response is always the same. Trying to turn lecturers into therapists is not my goal; this would be neither effective as teaching nor therapy. I have now come to expect, accept and understand the reasons behind this misplaced fear. I even enjoy encountering this response, as it opens up a space in which to discuss ‘how things are done around here’ and to revisit our objectives as educators.
We are using this blog to help connect stakeholders across Higher Education interested in student mental health. If you have a project you are working on or an idea you'd like to develop, why not write your own blog post for us?