If mental health matters, then what do we wish for?
In our college of wishful thinking, there are very few students to be found with anxiety or stress, as colleges actively promote a sense of good mental health and wellbeing. This has not been difficult to achieve as, like everything else in the world, it boils down to awareness and a large dose of common sense.
In University College Dublin, for example, they have a well-designed booklet on mental wellbeing which signposts the importance of creating an environment that supports mental health wellbeing across the whole college. This booklet gives staff clear information in a flow diagram on helping students to cope, and what to do if they are concerned about a student who shows signs of distress.
In examples from other colleges, induction sessions are used to get the message across about services such as Counselling, Disability Support and Chaplaincy. The staff come along and talk to new students about mental wellbeing, what to expect in college, how to cope; they explain their role and the supports available. The students go away knowing that feeling anxious is OK and they have a face and name to go to if there is a difficulty. This normalises the experience of anxiety that new students often feel, but think they are the only ones.
In our college of wishful thinking nothing is assumed. It is not assumed they come as ready-made academic writers. All first year students get instruction in the crucial academic skills such as academic writing, using computers, notetaking and planning. Furthermore, academic staff all attend awareness training on managing diversity, including managing disability, with the result that they have an understanding of the impact of mental health and what to watch out for. Of course in our wishful thinking scenario, the government have seen the light and provided sufficient funding to allow for smaller class sizes, enabling quality interaction with students. Academic tutors have the breathing space to monitor student progress and to give students constructive feedback on their essays and other work in good time.
This college of wishful thinking recognises that within the cohort of students between the ages of 18-25, one in four is vulnerable to experiencing a mental health difficulty. They have introduced specialised services such as UNILINK in Trinity College and Student Central in Maynooth University, designed to address the specific issues of students experiencing mental health issues. Run by professionals with mental health expertise, they support the students to learn to cope, they provide reassurance and a safety net that saves the student from dropping out.
All faculty implement policies on putting lectures online and they use their links with publishers to make e-books available to their students via the library. It is a pity that in our ideal, college lecturers with wild beards are a thing of the past, but then again students who have a hearing impairment and have to lip read prefer the well-trimmed faces on show these days.
Some people in the Department of Education were amazed that the colleges did away with terminal written examinations and opted instead for a broader choice of assessments for students involving presentations to small groups, videos, posters, assignments, projects and some written term examinations.
In these colleges of wishful thinking, students have a great choice of sport and exercise activities to choose from, from weekly yoga sessions, to relaxation, Pilates, and group walks on signposted routes around the college campus or local parks, or in the gym, right up to competitive team sports including football and archery. We think that these physical activities keep students in good mental health.
These colleges of wishful thinking may seem like a dream, but I think we should hold on to the dreams and make them a reality.
Ann Heelan, Executive Director, November 2016