One in four people in the UK will experience mental health difficulties every year.
To mark University Mental Health Day (9th March 2023), the charity Student Minds' national campaign to ensure no student is held back by their mental health, four OU postgraduate research students share their experiences.
"The expectation that we tell our stories and we self-narrate has become ubiquitous. This expectation is especially the case for mental illness. Sufferers are expected to narrate their illness and recovery, taking ownership of their story. This is something found broadly in self-help culture and in the community of sufferers where 'illness narratives' have become almost an imperative. Self-narratives also underpin the widely used practice of Narrative Therapy.
"My research rejects narrativism, the pro-narrative theory found in many areas, including philosophy and psychiatry. The focus on self-narratives has several potential dangers. Narrativism assumes that all individuals can think of themselves in the context of a self-narrative, with an extended past and future. But as Galen Strawson (2004) has shown, this is not the case. Other forms of narrativism assume thinking of one's life as a narrative is ethically superior, the only way we can live morally responsible lives. This is also not true. These assumptions risk the marginalisation of individuals with different psychology meaning self-narratives are not accessible to them.
"I develop specific objections to the practice of Narrative Therapy, which I argue is particularly vulnerable to falsehood. When we focus on self-narratives in therapy there is a potential for deception, on the part of the therapist (however unwittingly) but more likely on the part of the patient, in the form of self-deception or inauthenticity.
"The second part of my research is the positive aspect. Here I consider Buddhist psychology, and its different approach to suffering. Buddhist psychology sees suffering, including mental illness, as an inevitable part of life, and as something that should be accepted without judgement rather than avoided. Buddhists reject the self (which would be an essential part of self-narratives) as an illusion. Rather than being teleological and future-focussed, Buddhists encourage non-judgemental mindfulness in the present moment. This inspires a very different type of therapy, such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. My argument is that this form of therapy does not face the same objections as narrative-based therapy, and that it would not marginalise those individuals for whom self-narratives are inaccessible.
"In the future, I would hope to see a shift from the current trend of viewing narratives as the universal and superior means of treating mental illness. If patients and practitioners have a better understanding of individual needs and of different forms of therapy available, then many who are currently being given inappropriate treatment will be given better support."
"My favourite ever job was working as a play therapist with 2–7-year-old children with diagnosed mental health conditions. That was more than 25 years ago. Since that time, my career has gone in many different directions, but my passion for mental health has not wavered. I was fortunate enough to be able to undertake the OU's MSc in Mental Health Science and this led to my PhD in Psychology with a focus on higher education student mental health.
"Working through a positive psychology lens, I am researching what it takes for students who declare mental health difficulties to be academically successful. There is a lot of literature that focuses on how to support students to improve their mental health and wellbeing, but there is far less literature that focuses on improving academic outcomes. The first stage of my research, a quantitative phase which is complete, was to analyse our student data including outcomes. In summary, retention is a key issue for students with mental health difficulties. If students who declare mental health difficulties complete their modules or qualifications, they achieve at similar rates to students who do not declare mental health difficulties.
"I am just starting the second phase which is qualitative and includes participatory workshops and a survey with students who have successfully completed at least 120 credits. Ultimately, I want to model what success looks like for students who declare mental health difficulties and to understand what we as an institution can do better to facilitate more students completing their qualifications."
"I've worked with children for nearly 20 years as a tennis coach and more recently did a short stint as a teaching assistant in a primary school. I'm passionate about sport and know the benefits it has brought me throughout my life, so I wanted to research the link between physical activity/sport and the mental health and wellbeing of children. I decided to take a break from the tennis coaching (I never told myself I'd actually stopped!) and pursued a Master of Research (MRes) with the University of Birmingham in which I explored the positive impact of physical activity on the mental health of underprivileged children and adolescents. If you want to read more my publication is here: The Positive Impact and Associated Mechanisms of Physical Activity on Mental Health in Underprivileged Children and Adolescents: An Integrative Review.
"This led to my PhD here at The Open University. I wanted to delve deeper into children's physical activity experiences, considering both positive and negative, as they go through a critical period in their lives and move to secondary school. The transition to secondary school, often coinciding with puberty, can be a particularly difficult and stressful time for children. My research is not specifically looking at mental health but, knowing that positive physical activity experiences support the mental health of children, I knew it was highly likely that it would be a discussion point. I conducted creative, participatory workshops with a group of children just before they left primary school in which they used a range of methods, such as drawing, modelling and peer interviews, to outline positive and negative experiences of physical activity and their expectations for secondary school. I am about to go and work with the same children in their secondary schools to see what their experiences were like through the transition.
"The goal is to learn how we can use positive physical activity experiences to better support children through the transition into secondary school (and beyond). It is in the interests of schools, parents, and policymakers to ensure that children are supported to live happy and healthy lives. My goal as a tennis coach, a teaching assistant and now as a researcher, has been to improve children's lives and I'll continue to work towards achieving it."
"I'm an Associate Lecturer in Health and Social Care doing a Professional Doctorate in Education (EdD). When I finished my OU Masters Degree in Education (MEd), I was looking for an EdD research topic when I read Richardson's (2015) research that distance-learning students with mental health challenges were less likely to complete their modules than other students. I knew that this was the research focus I wanted, not just because I was passionate about supporting my students as an Associate Lecturer, but because the research was telling my story: I dropped out of my first Open University degree 25 years ago when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
"My research is emancipatory action research looking at whether proactive motivational support can facilitate online students with mental health challenges to become independent learners. It is action research because the data collection was conducted with a small group of my students throughout an academic year, and emancipatory because the focus is on participant voice, with the participants contributing to planning and evaluating the support provided. As a member of the mental health community, my own voice is part of this. I am using the affirmative model of disability, which emphasises positive social identities grounded in life experience, and acknowledges the impact of impairment as well as disability (Swain and French, 2000).
"I am in the final year of my research and am writing up my key findings. My research developed three themes concerning supporting online students with mental health challenges. The first presents a cycle of anxiety experienced by students that can lead to deferral or withdrawal from studies. The second focuses on the complex environment in which they study and how module subject and personal situations, alongside mental health stigma, impact the study experience. The last theme looks at the enabling environment and how proactive motivational support, good communication and student resilience can combine to overcome barriers to learning. My findings are that students value regular and proactive contact with their tutors to build relationships and maintain motivation. That personal proactive contact is important when they are at risk of withdrawal."
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