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.
With most first-year university students moving directly from a highly structured and regulated school and home environment, and mature students likely juggling multiple commitments across various life domains, it is little wonder that many students experience this as a challenging transition into and through higher education. Perhaps not surprisingly then, levels of low wellbeing, mental distress and mental illness among students in higher education are increasing and are high relative to other sections of the population.
Against this backdrop, higher education settings are now recognised as important sites for primary prevention and the promotion of positive mental health in Ireland and elsewhere. There have been calls for academic and support services staff to be enabled to work more closely together to help students and for wellbeing to be embedded in higher education curricula.
Importantly, health information needs to be considered in the context of our everyday lives, where most of us consciously or unconsciously make trade-offs between what we need, want and have to do on a daily basis. We need to think beyond activities (e.g., diet and exercise) in isolation. Instead, we need to think about how we do all the ordinary and extraordinary activities that collectively shape our daily lives, across the 1440 minutes or 24 hours of the day and 7 days of the week.
Underpinned by population health, positive youth development, ecological and occupational perspectives of health; and developmental neuroscience, I’ve designed and delivered innovative ‘Everyday Matters’ sessions to first year students in University College Cork. Participating students are encouraged to explore some practical everyday things that they can say and do to support themselves as much as possible during this time of change and establish healthy habits and routines for their university lifestyle. From September 2019, these sessions will be further developed into an 8-week digital badge micro-credential, affording first year students the opportunity to learn about brain and body health, and how to create and maintain daily habits and routines that support physical and emotional wellbeing for learning and life. It is hoped that meaningfully and coherently embedding such an offering within higher education institutions, particularly for first-year students, will support their successful transition into and through higher education.
If you are developing universal curricular initiatives around student wellbeing within your institution, I would love to connect with you.
Eithne Hunt, PhD., MSc., Pg.DipStat, BSc. OT, MAOTI
Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
University College Cork, Ireland
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