Supporting students' mental health and wellbeing at university

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Starting university is, undoubtedly, a wonderful and exciting time for students as they get the opportunity to explore a new world – acquiring new knowledge, meeting new people and making lasting friendships, and learning about themselves and others. However, research indicates, the mental health of young people and university students across the world has deteriorated over recent decades, with levels of distress, suicidal thoughts, anxiety and depression on the rise. Students regularly have to deal with diverse stresses at colleges and universities – financial burden, academic pressure & exams, social situations, moving away from home to mention a few. Students’ mental health issues are fueling a rise in suicides and diminishing well-being which have serious effects on their academic performance as well as their quality of life. A healthy mind provides the emotional energy and clarity to approach and manage life with optimism and resilience. If a student's mental health is supported, in turn they are happier and healthier, and perform academically to the best of their abilities. Teachers and other academic staff in higher education institutes can play a central role in identifying struggling students and encouraging them to access mental health support. The Routledge publication “Student Wellness: Helping Students Develop a Healthy Mind at University” explores how to support students’ mental health and well-being in higher educational institutes. The collection of chapters in this book, authored by experienced academics and researchers, provide some helpful advice to better understand a student's mental health and offer coping strategies while they seek professional support.

The first chapter of the book ‘How to reduce exam-related stress’ is written by Prof. Fares Howari, College of Natural and Health Sciences at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi. He provides some simple tips that can help students cope with fear of exams as well as overcome the psychological distress that usually interferes with their academic performance. Students should prepare early for the exam and do not waste time or procrastinate, leaving revision until the last minute. Another helpful factor can be good nutrition, as this can play an important role in optimum cognitive functioning. Students should take healthy food and drink necessary water when revising for the exam, even during the exam. An important tip is also to take light exercise; this can help some people to cope with anxiety and its negative effects. As an exam is not a matter of life or death for the student, the author advises wisely: “My dear student, only try your best to pass the exam. If you fail, it need not mean the end of the world.”

The second chapter is an excerpt from a ground breaking book ‘College Mindfulness Training: Reducing Student Life Stress and Improving Academic Performance’ by Kevin Page, which carefully combines selected meditation exercises with guidance explaining the background, scientific context, and practical applications of mindfulness practice. Here, the author comes up with details how and why personal mindfulness practice is essential for the college-aged students to enhance their emotional well-being and academic performance. Throughout the chapter, the author provides readers with insights into basic meditation and mindfulness techniques along with extensive practical exercises for both beginner and intermediate-level meditation students.

In chapter 3 -‘What do we do when students despair: Considering pedagogical caring’, Lorraine Eden, Kathy Lund Dean & Paul M Vaaler draw our attention towards some crucial questions pertinent to students’ mental health and wellbeing: “How far should we go to assist a student in distress? What is our ethical responsibility as educators to help a student connect to our classroom learning? How do we determine when to engage with student distress, and how do we do it most effectively?” They also share real incidents they encountered with students who needed more help than they were initially prepared to give, and frame their response around the Awareness-Motivation-Capability model. The authors explore both the pros and cons of reaching out to specific students who appear to be struggling with various aspects of the course beyond content itself.

The next chapter is an excerpt from the book ‘Helpful Skills for working with College Students’, authored by Monica Galloway Burke, Jill Duba Sauerheber, Aaron W Hughey & Karl Laves, which discusses about the skills necessary to facilitate the helping process and understand how to respond to student concerns and crises, including how to make referrals to appropriate campus or community resources. This chapter also focuses on the idea of stress and how some stress can lead to the development of psychological disorders. There is also a brief description of the broad areas of psychological disorders, specifically anxiety and depression, and a focus on working with students who become at risk for suicide. Eating disorders and substance abuse are also discussed, including the impact of these disorders on students. Focusing on counseling concepts and applications essential for effective student affairs practice, this chapter includes questions for reflection, theory to practice exercises, case studies, and examples from the field.

The last chapter of the book entitled ‘General Warning Signs’, authored by Dr. Bruce S. Sharkin,  explores general warning signs of student distress, symptoms of specific psychological problems such as anxiety and depression, guidelines for interventions, and methods of making a referral for counseling. The author first discusses the challenges associated with trying to differentiate between normal developmental issues and more serious problems in college & university students. He then attempts to describe forms of behavior that should raise concern: disruptive, atypical, and unusual behavior. The author also discusses how academic-related difficulties such as poor performance and poor attendance of students may be a symptom of mental health problems that should be paid attention to.

The writer is an independent researcher. E-mail: smrayhanulislam@hotmail.com

  • Student Wellness
  • Helping Students Develop a Healthy Mind at University
  • Published by Routledge

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