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Should Psychology Departments Intervene in Student Mental Health?

26 Nov 2018 | Dr Michail Mantzios The rise in ill mental health and its impact on academic performance is a pressing issue requiring innovative and effective solutions. Training psychology students in Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) may be a solution towards the promotion of optimal mental health.

Universities and Psychology departments can effectively improve mental health and wellbeing amongst student populations by training psychology students in MHFA, and by integrating student Mental Health First Aiders within already existing provisions to allow them to provide services as institutional peer-supporters. The need for peer-support to effectively signpost and promote wellbeing, and attempts to reduce stigma, fear and ignorance around mental health is more of a possibility through MHFA.

Higher education students experience elevated levels of stress, anxiety and report experiencing negative thoughts and emotions that influence their mood and frame of mind. Several studies have shown that approximately 50% of students experience irregularly high levels of anxiety and stress. These higher levels of stress mark an increase in reported rates of stress-related mental health issues in undergraduate and graduate students, reductions in student satisfaction and reduction in academic performance; all leading to lower rates of retention. Overall, early interventions with mental health difficulties (or avoiding the escalation of early warning signs into full symptoms of mental health disorders) will improve educational attainment and employment opportunities, as well as social functioning and quality of life of students and graduates.

As a lead in mental health and wellbeing, and with a team of academics and students, we framed a Mental Health First Aid Support Network to enable well-being and flourishment across the University. Within this mental health first aid support network, trainers enable staff and students to become certified mental health first aiders and continuously support them with their volunteer roles, while staff assist and guide mental health first aid students as mentors. Together, through a framework of partnership and mutual support, we are supporting staff and students equally, and students volunteer to enter an internship of a Mental Health First Aid role to provide peer-support for students’ mental health across the university. We are also currently working on self-help interventions that may assist in the prevention of ill mental health, such as different mindfulness practices and other stress-reduction techniques, which are both expert- and peer-led. Treatment of ill mental health and promotion of optimal mental health are seen as vital elements of supporting a healthy and effective environment for learning and teaching. 

The Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course was developed almost fifteen years ago by Kitchener and Jorm to enhance support for people with mental health difficulties through training community members. The advice that can be provided through mental health first aid is very easily summarized through an action plan that is descriptive of the programme (known as “ALGEE”): Approach the person, assess and assist with any crisis, Listen and communicate non-judgmentally, Give support and information, Encourage the person to get appropriate professional help, Encourage other supports.

Furthermore, the programme is inclusive of evidence-based content and shares expert consensus on new and appropriate material that could be used to enhance and support mental health first aid training. Two meta-analyses showed that mental health first aid training increased mental health knowledge and helping behaviours while reducing stigma around mental health. Also, positive effects post-training on recognizing, helping, and providing first aid were also observed. Therefore, mental health first aid training entails a course that enables mental health awareness and supports the first instance of a mental health crisis and proposes a mechanism of signposting individuals who are suffering towards the right direction. The non-engagement of students with institution-based counselling services dictates the need for a fundamental and radical intervention of changing mental health treatment and promotion, as well as enhancing the reduction of stigma and discrimination. All these elements may come about easier from students, through the MHFA training, and the opportunities provided by Higher Education institutions to further train, develop and supervise psychology students. The return for HE institutions would be a construction of a pedagogically excellent provision for psychology students of experiential learning while producing a cost-effective and easily sustainable workforce of students who are passionate about mental health and helping others.

With the right policies, and collaboration with counselling services within the institution, as well as close supervision of student volunteers, what do we have to lose in a world where 1 in 4 of us experiences a mental health difficulty? Maybe it is a topic for us to discuss, exchange ideas, and transform educational programmes and curriculums that are built to promote more resilient students and generations. For now, similar to the vision of Advance HE, this innovative initiative represents a combined mission to strive for excellence in all areas of the HE sector, and enhances through our academic leadership, learning and teaching for health-related curriculums in Higher Education.

Dr Michail Mantzios is a Reader in Health Psychology and Lead in Mental Health and Wellbeing at Birmingham City University. He believes that mental health and wellbeing are of pedagogical urgency, while life-skills such as mindfulness, compassion, morality, kindness and gratitude should be taught as elements of development and personal growth. 

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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