To coincide with April’s Stress Awareness Month, Yasuhiro Kotera, Academic Lead in Counselling at UDOL (University of Derby Online Learning), talks about the mental health of students in caring professions and its relationship with self-compassion, identity and motivation.
Helping others’ mental health is increasingly important for caring students. But taking care of their own mental health is equally, if not more, important as the image of themselves as a future practitioner can potentially blind them to their own mental health issues.
Popularity of caring subjects in the UK
Courses in caring profession subjects are among the most popular in UK universities, offering good future prospects – about 90% of healthcare graduates find professional-level employment or move onto further study within six months of graduation.
In 2014, more than 55% of all undergraduate applicants applied to caring profession programmes, which include allied health professions (such as occupational therapy), counselling, clinical psychology, nursing, social work and teaching. Moreover, out of the 2.3 million students enrolled at undergraduate or postgraduate level during the 2015-2016 academic year, more than 20% were studying caring profession subjects.
Low levels of mental wellbeing in UK caring students
Despite the popularity of the subjects, levels of mental wellbeing in caring profession students are relatively low. Nursing students for example are more stressed than those studying any other subject, while more than a third of social work students have high levels of depression.
Their educational and clinical training curriculum is typically demanding, both at university and during professional placements, so it is unsurprising that 70% of nursing students have high levels of psychological distress and often require psychological support or counselling to cope with training-related emotional problems.
Psychological distress fosters sickness absence as well as poor academic performance. A 2008 survey by the Royal College of Nursing revealed that 44% of nursing students had considered leaving the course, and that the majority of this 44% believed their tutors were unaware of their intentions. Likewise, 4% of social work students reported experiencing depression-related suicidal thoughts.
Understanding the key factors that influence the mental wellbeing of caring students will contribute to the development of a curriculum that addresses their needs better.
Strong relationships between mental wellbeing, self-compassion, identity and motivation
When we explored the mental wellbeing of over 100 caring students, we found that about a third of them had below-average mental wellbeing, and more than half had severe or worse mental health symptoms.
Mental wellbeing was positively related to self-compassion and intrinsic motivation (where you study because you like the subject). Self-compassion, role identity and intrinsic motivation were also identified as independent predictors for mental wellbeing and mental health symptoms.
Peer group support and mental wellbeing
While caring students can suffer from poor mental wellbeing, the participants in our study reported lower rates of distress than students from across all the different subject areas.
This relatively lower occurrence of mental health symptoms may be due to the peer group benefits of studying with people who aspire to help others, or the fact that students prefer talking about mental distress to their peers rather than to a professional or family member.
Compassion, self-awareness, and the ‘Disney strategy’ – training for mental wellbeing
The strong relationship between mental wellbeing and self-compassion suggests the value of compassion or mindfulness training, with positive results from small-scale studies on caring students. Essentially, with self-compassion being at the humanitarian root of the caring profession, training focusing on this area would be beneficial.
With caring students’ image of themselves as a future care worker potentially blinding them to their own mental health issues, self-awareness training may also be effective to help them become more aware of their values, mental health, attitudes and personal issues, including how these might affect their caring work.
As intrinsic motivation is related to mental wellbeing, students with a strong sense of personal meaning tend to have better mental wellbeing. Research suggests that cultivating this could be achieved by nurturing a goal that transcends the individual’s self-needs. My previous research suggests that the Disney strategy, a dynamic Neuro-Linguistic Programming skill that considers dreams and plans, could help students identify what they want internally from their studies and career. Such a dynamic process could be introduced either as an addition or alternative to traditional classroom-based training approaches.
Looking to the future
As the emphasis on mental health has been strengthened nationally and internationally, more mental health problems and people suffering from them have been identified, suggesting an even greater need for self-care in caring students and practitioners.
Our findings will help educators and policy-makers to develop curriculum and training to address the problems that caring students and practitioners encounter today.