In this post, Omar Kaissi a teaching fellow at the Institute for Education, Community and Society, Moray House School of Education and Sport, and a member of the Higher Education Research Group (HERG), walks us through his experience of completing a mental health training session organised jointly by the University’s Student Counselling and Student Disability services and illustrates how this training can apply to a hybrid teaching and learning environment…
For long, whenever asked about teaching in higher education, I would highlight the significance of “knowledge, skills and intercultural understanding,” a certain “holy trinity” I came across once in a report on the state of liberal arts education in the US. However, my recent participation in an online mental health training session organised jointly by the University’s Student Counselling and Student Disability services has broadened my horizons. Offered on a regular basis, the session is geared toward all academic staff, across schools and departments, and offers invaluable insight into mental health provision essentials and requirements, particularly in post-Covid-19 times. My lack of knowledge about students’ mental health needs had been my prime motivation for participating, and, truth be said, it was worth every bit of my time.
In addition to key terms and concepts, facts and statistics, case studies and a conceptual model that demonstrates, quite usefully, the extremities of mental health experience (e.g. from “flourishing mental wellbeing” to “poor mental wellbeing”), I have learnt a great deal about what my own position as a teaching fellow and personal tutor entails, both personally and professionally, with respect to mental health provision. This includes, for instance, the abilities to identify mental health difficulties, evaluate their severity and know when and how to recommend and/or help students self-refer to the University’s counselling or disability service.
I won’t go further into the specifics of the session, for you can always book yourself a place. Rather, my aim here is to share with you three key takeaways:
- Complexity: Mental health is not straightforward. Owing to the variety and complexity of mental health conditions, conceptual distinctions are necessary. To give but one example, think of the distinction between low mood (temporary and non-consequential) and depression (permanent and consequential), or, equally (if not more) important, the distinction between everyday life depression, due to a range of risk factors (e.g. pandemics, bereavements and workplace stress), and long-term, significantly impeding depression, with serious implications for wellbeing, including hygiene, nourishment, socialisation, self-perception and emotional coping and resilience.
- Care: Empathy, compassion and the expression of genuine, humane concern are of utmost importance. Here are two tips on the proper way to communicate with students. First, be an effective and active listener. Try to understand what the student is experiencing or feeling and refrain from reacting directly and visibly. Also, body language can make a big difference. Avoid eye contact and do not sit opposite to them. Second, say “thank you” to show appreciation for their willingness to disclose aspects of their own personal, social and/or educational lives. Overall, bear in mind that care, in essence, is about the maximal alleviation of barriers (interpersonal or environmental) to effective collaboration and a long-term, meaningful and productive teacher-student relationship.
- Boundaries: The complexity of responding to mental health issues and challenges must not preclude you from safeguarding professional boundaries. Here, too, two tips may well come in handy. First, do only what you can do; remember, you are not a mental health expert. With respect to access, if students approach you at inappropriate times, or use too much of your time, do not be afraid to say “no” and, ideally, suggest alternative arrangements. Second, never promise complete confidentiality, particularly if disclosed information, such as self-harm, is of a critical nature and must, therefore, be shared with other colleagues (e.g. a senior personal tutor).
There are many ways in which these fundamental considerations can be practically implemented, offline or online. Here are three. First, to recognise complexities, you may want to use some of the materials discussed in the session to create your own list of conceptual distinctions. This list can serve as a guide to better understand students’ short- or long-term mental health difficulties and needs. Second, to practise active listening, try, as much as humanly possible, to clear your head of all pressing thoughts and/or personal concerns. In addition, you may want to create a track record to follow up with and evaluate students’ progress. Third, to set out boundaries, you may want to use a teacher-student agreement protocol – I prefer “protocol” to the word “contract” – that outlines clearly your responsibility as a tutor or lecturer vis-à-vis mental health provision. Allow for flexibility, but also stress the limitedness of your expert knowledge and resources to deal with critical conditions or incidents.
Finally, don’t get me wrong: I am not abandoning the “holy trinity” of knowledge, skills and intercultural understanding! Yet, as we collectively endeavour to weather the storms of the current pandemic, we would be doing both ourselves and our students some necessary good if we prioritised and incorporated mental health awareness into course design and delivery. Sadly, higher education remains for the most part a credentials race, but this does not mean that we stop thinking of how teaching and learning, and university life more broadly, can be made more humane.
Dr Omar Kaissi is a teaching fellow at the Institute for Education, Community and Society, Moray House School of Education and Sport, and a member of the Higher Education Research Group (HERG). His research interests include the sociology of education, sociology of knowledge and knowledge production and sociology of civil societies and civil society organisation.