Always seek help if you need it. But many of us are able to take steps to boost our mental health as part of our daily routines.
Today (the 4th of March) is University Mental Health Day. It’s a valuable moment to think about our own mental health and the wellbeing of the people around us, particularly in universities. Before beginning my PhD research, I spent a year as a higher education mentor, supporting undergraduates and postgraduates diagnosed with poor mental health. I worked with people from several universities across the Southeast of England; they were of different ages and backgrounds. But one of the characteristics shared by all the students was that their mental health problems were linked to many issues.
Because of how the psychological sciences have developed, we often understand and treat mental health as separate from the rest of our lives. However, where we live, how we relate to people, our finances and many other factors are linked to our mental health. And they can get worse over time. Social isolation, a sense of underachievement, relationship problems, and financial worries can all affect our wellbeing long before a diagnosable mental health condition arises.
So while reliable diagnosis and treatment are essential when we become unwell, we should consider our health in the broadest sense. This is not just the responsibility of healthcare practitioners; we all could be creating the best possible conditions for our own mental health. We don’t need to wait for problems to become critical before we make changes. This is particularly true of student populations in higher education, where many people will be remote from their friends and families and face new and daunting challenges.
I generally think of mental illness as an effect that grows out of causes and conditions. It rarely arrives out of the blue without warning. If we can recognise those negative changes early enough, we have the opportunity to halt deterioration in our mental health. However, if we allow problems to grow unchecked and accumulate, we are more vulnerable to illness. If we become unwell, we should seek help as soon as possible. But the University Mental Health Day is also a reminder that support is available even before we reach a crisis or a low point.So I would urge everybody to consider their mental health as a work in progress; we have the potential in every moment to increase our happiness and wellbeing. Reliable meditation methods are just one of the tools available to us. The most import ideas are that we recognise the need to treat our mental health seriously and actively build resilience, and never be afraid to ask for help when we need it.
Student mental health is in decline, financial pressure on undergraduates is a key issue. Meditation and mindfulness may be able to help.
Students are increasingly calling upon mental health and counselling support while at university according to Open Access Government1. Almost 9 out of 10 students are experiencing stress, and 3 out of 4 report feelings of anxiety. The proportion of students identifying as having a mental health condition grew five-fold in the last decade.
The exact reasons for the spiralling rates of poor mental health amongst students are unclear. However, because of the universality of the problems, widespread trends in society are likely to have a mediating role. Amongst the factors thought to be contributing to these high levels of stress, financial pressures play a prominent role. With more student taking on unprecedented levels of debt at a young age, there is inevitably a greater risk to mental health. Worry about student debt can lead to increased anxiety, linked to both academic performance and long term employment prospects.
The thought of having to pay back a large student loan can translate to increased pressure on individual assignments, ‘to pay back the loan I will have to get a well-paid job, for which I will need to get good grades’. Put simply, for some students, success in their undergraduate studies can appear to be absolutely essential for life long success. Given, the cost of buying a home, decreasing job security, worsening employment conditions, some undergraduates are experiencing a heightened fear of failure. Fear not only linked to their grades but the prospect of long term debt, low wages, and general financial insecurity.
When academic stress provokes a sense of challenge it is typically seen as a good thing, linked to self-efficacy and a sense of competence and achievement. However, if stress becomes a threat, a whole range of different mental constructs engage which can include fear and anxiety. A review of the evidence from cognitive psychology provides clear indications of how meditation and mindfulness can be used to develop resilience to stress in higher education, improving wellbeing and quality of life.
Students reporting mental health and wellbeing issues had risen fivefold before the Covid pandemic. Can #meditation help hold back the tide?
There was growing evidence that young people’s mental health and wellbeing in the UK was in decline long before COVID. This problem is particularly pronounced among students in higher education (HE). According to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)1, the proportion of university students reporting a mental health condition grew five-fold in the last decade. However, studies from cognitive psychology and contemplative science have started to signpost approaches that offer support for students dealing with anxiety, stress, procrastination, and motivation.
Not unsurprisingly, problems with mental health and wellbeing can profoundly impact students’ ability to perform academically and their willingness to complete their chosen course of study. Serious mental health problems are rarely restricted just to academic matters and can influence all areas of life. In some universities, 25% of the total student body has engaged with or are waiting to access wellbeing services.
From a scientific perspective, there is a range of mixed messages coming from meditation research. There are individual studies that suggest meditation or mindfulness can have a positive impact on specific mental health and wellbeing issues. Still, regrettably, the results are rarely replicated or strongly supported by strategic reviews. However, by approaching student mental health using instruments from cognitive psychology and neuroscience, some straightforward strategies for using meditation and mindfulness emerge. These centre mainly on understanding the known constructs that underpin obstacles to successful engagement with HE.
Although every student is different and the challenges each faces is unique, the science indicates there are common factors to many of the academic obstacles they face. It would be an oversimplification to suggest that the same meditation is beneficial for every student. But an appropriate method (one able to tackle their underlying problems) is likely to bring some benefit leading to a more positive engagement with academic work and improve all-round wellbeing.