Breaking the silence: Expert tips for navigating mental health conversations in academic settings
Addressing mental health in academic settings is crucial for student well-being and success. Here are tips to help you navigate these important conversations.
Mental health crises are undeniably on the rise with many children unable to see a way out of the chaotic environment in which they currently live. Therefore, it is vital that they have the right resources and coping mechanisms, to manage mental health crises in themselves and others. Mental wellness education can help ensure that students understand important mental health concepts. Knowing how to manage mental health is not only important for mentors and educators, but also provides an opportunity to create a nurturing environment where children can thrive intellectually, socially and emotionally. Although talking about mental health can be intimidating, it is an essential first step in developing emotional stability and fostering lasting relationships with children. (Also read: Inside the young mind: A closer view of childhood depression )
"Destigmatizing means to remove this association of shame from seeking mental health support. The belief that most people would think less of someone who has received mental health treatment further complicates the challenges of life on campus as students navigate their way through novel experiences, newfound independence and opportunities that shape their personal and professional way ahead. Some of the myths that fuel this stigma around mental health and mental illness are that people with mental illness cannot work, mental health conditions are permanent and seeking support for your mental health is a sign of weakness and points out/emphasises that I am different from others," says Dr. Shalini Sharma, Counselling Psychologist and Therapist at Plaksha University.
Tips for Addressing Mental Health in Academic Settings
Dr. Shalini further shared with HT Digital some of the ways we can soften the resistance around seeking mental health support on campus:
What is mentionable becomes manageable
When we can name things, talk about them, and have conversations about our feelings it becomes less scary, less overwhelming and more manageable. We often worry that admitting a mistake or a struggle will make us seen as unstable as we are not able to handle something on our own. Speaking about our unpleasant emotions may seem very uncomfortable at first however they also create an opportunity to manage and figure out things together. We are not meant to go through grief, pain and struggles alone.
Mental Health Disorders are not adjectives
“Stop being such a Psycho”, “She yelled at me again she is so Bipolar”. Putting ‘People First Language’ makes the disorder or disability a part of the person and not who the person is eg. the person who committed suicide vs died by suicide, the person is an addict vs a person who struggles with substance use condition. Being mindful of how words matter in such conversations can play a significant role in shaping attitudes towards mental health.
Follow a two-pronged approach
We continue to view seeking support for mental well-being as a response to a problem rather than as something recommended for everyone as a way to learn skills and improve life in general. The two-pronged approach holds building preventive skills to be as important as corrective interventions. This can be encouraged through individual counselling, and group sessions which can help prioritize problems into bite-size, manageable pieces and can desensitize students to the idea that they have to do it all. Introductory psychology courses can go a long way to share with students how they may apply research insights on emotion regulation, learning and memory, to their lives.
Weaving the message of mental health in classes in a more direct way
A focus on our mental well-being need not be limited to only workshops and webinars, it needs to make its way into classes and educators' interactions with students. Faculty can be encouraged to let students know that any mental illnesses they’re facing are just as legitimate as physical illnesses. Both are real struggles that will be taken seriously. This can create a more comfortable environment for students to raise mental health difficulties and concerns.
Educators could be encouraged to share snippets of how they look after their emotional well-being and deal with various stressors. Along with this, it would be great to have well-being practices woven into the coursework wherein a class could be started with a brief mindfulness practice or a feelings check-in. It is not suggested that educators replace professional mental health services however they can view their role as ‘gatekeepers’ of student mental health, just to show a sense of care that they notice something might be going on, and to know where to refer students.
Taking a mental health day is just as important as a sick day
At times with a perfect storm of academics, work, and other pressures bearing down on students, it can be suggested to take a mental health day from classes and commitments. It reinforces the fact that it’s okay to just need a day to listen to your emotional and mental needs just as it's okay to listen to your physical needs.
Approach to caring adults on campus
It’s common for young people dealing with depression or anxiety to feel ashamed, weak or insecure. They may frequently ask themselves, ‘Why can’t I figure this out on my own?’ The way caring adults approach the process makes a critical difference in our young adult's attitudes about mental health and willingness to ask for help.
"I await the day when we truly understand that struggling with a mental condition does not make us ‘crazy’ and that taking appropriate care of our mental health is the responsible thing that healthy adults need to do, just like making a dentist appointment. Let’s see health issues as health issues, whether they are physical or mental," concluded Dr. Shalini Sharma.