Can we really build well-being in the digital curriculum?

Photo credit: Tim Mossholder, Unsplash CC0

In this post, Mark Hoelterhoff discusses the importance of understanding mental health from the perspective of flourishing and meaning-finding and offers reflections on how to approach it within our digital education spaces. Dr Hoelterhoff is a Lecturer in Psychology at The University of Edinburgh.

As the pandemic hit, the student experience was forced to move into the digital space. A 2020 Office for National Statistics survey reported 57% of students reported an increase in mental illness and 63% felt COVID-19 posed a significant risk to their mental or physical health. Universities UK has called on higher education institutions to embed well-being into the curriculum as a response to this crisis. As a result, many universities have attempted to bolster support and counselling by developing new strategies, in both digital and campus-based services.

We often hear of a holistic approach to addressing the needs of students in crisis. The “whole university” approach includes involving both the local community services, student well-being services and embedding mental health literacy in the curriculum. These are much-needed steps to address the crisis of mental illness seen across universities during and before the pandemic. The emphasis on supporting students in hardship is vital in safeguarding the student population and a whole university approach can help make sure that people do not fall through the cracks when help is needed most. Learning in the digital age does present the risk that students may go unseen and unknown.

While I support the whole university approach to helping students in need, I don’t think this goes far enough. If embedding well-being in the curriculum becomes a way to support students in crisis, it missing the opportunity to encourage students to grow, crisis or not. As a psychologist, my field has had a preoccupation with what can wrong with people and how to fix it. While we use terms like mental health and well-being, we really mean mental illness and symptom reduction. As psychologists, we need to provide a picture of what mental health looks like. Mental health is not the absence of mental illness. Mental health can be about growing, thriving and flourishing.

The whole university approach is a wonderful opportunity to develop growth and flourishing among our academic community, even in a digital environment. True well-being in the curriculum needs to go beyond identifying risk factors like stress and burn-out. A mentally healthy university also needs to challenge students to grow and pursue authentic well-being. Positive psychologist Martin Seligman says flourishing is a result of positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. By embedding a flourishing model of well-being in the curriculum we are simultaneously reducing the negative aspects of mental illness while improving overall mental health, academic engagement and overall better health outcomes.

A whole university approach needs to emphasise educating the whole person. Universities need to consider the attributes of their graduates and the ways in which we help them to achieve growth and global citizenship so that they can make a positive impact in their communities. In educating the whole person, universities have an opportunity to educate students beyond vocational training. The whole-person approach allows the curriculum to also embed skills for flourishing, for both individuals and the society at large. Flourishing students can positively contribute to civic engagement. The emphasis on digital education now allows us to go beyond textbook driven pedagogy and utilise tools that can contribute to the education of the whole person. Tools that can help students discover their strengths, relational skills, even identify values to help them stay engaged with academic content. Digital communities provide a place to educate students on developing relational skills in a social media culture.

Of course, academic, professional and support staff have had their own challenges as well. The whole university approach means that we cannot just provide support for the student population, but for the staff as well. When staff are asked about supporting the needs of students’ mental health, they rightly ask “what about us?” There is no doubt that university staff are feeling over-worked and burnt-out. A survey by Fidelity Investments and The Chronicle of Higher Education found that two-thirds of staff at higher institutions felt the symptoms of burnout. It makes sense that asking staff to shoulder more burden for the health of their students can feel like a huge ask.

If we continue to portray student well-being as symptom reduction and crisis management, then it is too big of a task to take on by staff alone. However, if we consider digital education as an opportunity to promote flourishing, we have an opportunity to both build into authentic well-being while providing students with the skills to manage problems that come their way. Subjective well-being skills have been demonstrated to work in improving health and we have an opportunity to educate the whole student. The opportunities for digital innovation that the pandemic has created have encouraged me as a lecturer to move beyond the teaching of theoretical content. I want my students to consider what brings them meaning, purpose and fulfilment. As we seek to transform the digital landscape of teaching, our curriculum can include opportunities for learning how to utilise well-being education, life skills and opportunities for public engagement.

photograph of the authorMark Hoelterhoff

Mark has been in the field of mental well-being for over 25 years. As a counselling psychologist, his experience includes working alongside people in both private practise and third sector organisations around the world. He has provided psychoeducation, individual and family psychotherapy to clients who have wide-ranging experiences. He tends to focus on agentic strengths-based approaches for engaging protective factors to facilitate resilience in the face of adversity. His clinical, teaching and research focus is on thriving through intrapersonal development and interpersonal transformation. He bases his work on positive psychology to enable people to find meaningful purpose, develop potential and lead fulfilling lives. In addition to health care settings, he has worked at several higher education institutions before coming to the University of Edinburgh.

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