With around 25% of university students estimated to have some form of mental health problem, University of Derby Online Academic Lead for Counselling Yasuhiro Kotera and Professor David Sheffield, Director of Professional Psychology Programmes, explore the issue of self-compassion as a means of overcoming stigma that surrounds the issue.
Mental health of UK university students is challenging. About a quarter of them are estimated to have some sort of mental health problem. Our research revealed that what may be worsening their mental health is stigma and shame attached to mental health problems. While people’s perception towards mental health in general is more positive these days, mental health stigma is still present, which can have negative impacts on our mental health. Indeed, stigma can stop or delay people from receiving help, leading to negative clinical outcomes.
This may mean that students who are sensitive to stigma can be caught up in a negative cycle of mental health problems: having a mental health problem, and feeling shame about it, which makes their mental health even worse. Shame and stigma can involve strong negative emotions, and are related to social expectation. Students may have some internal standards that they must ‘be’ a certain way, rather than be who they are and say what they really feel (i.e., authenticity).
The link to self-compassion
This was also found in our research: A construct that is useful to reduce mental health shame and mental health problems was self-compassion, meaning we should be kind and understanding towards our own inadequacies and weaknesses. After all, we all have a certain degree of mental distress in our daily life, and many of us have some mental health problems at some point in life.
Having a mental health problem does not mean that you are not cut out for academic work, or to get a job you want. Recognising the problem and taking action is more important. Self-compassion may allow you to get in touch with your authenticity and what you are really feeling, leading you to appropriate actions.
Focus on your achievements
University studies may ask a lot from you, and you may feel that you need to stretch yourself to attain those goals. That is important, but at the same time, take some time to recognise what you feel, and noting what you have achieved may also be useful. In our current research of self-compassion training, participating students reported that they are more able to recognise what they have, instead of feeling inferior from focusing on what they don’t have.
While mental health awareness increases, attitudes towards mental health also need attention. Don’t criticise yourself for having a mental health problem (that is a part of human phenomena), but be understanding towards your mental health problems. This is more likely to lead you to better mental health.
How to practice self-compassion
Self-compassion may sound spiritual or extravagant, but can be practiced easily. For example, you can practice imagery. Think of someone who is very understanding to you. What would they say about a problem you have now? How would they say it? What would that make you feel? This can be an actual person you have met or an imaginary person (e.g., a character from a movie) or your pet or objects (e.g., tree!). You could also write those down as a letter to yourself.
Alternatively, some people prefer starting with feeling compassion towards others first. In such a case, imagine a little boy/girl crying in front of you. What would you say to them? How would you say it to them? Record those, and imagine you do that for yourself. How does that make you feel? The bottom line here is that compassion is everywhere if you focus on it, and the key is that using compassion towards yourself once in a while may be good for you (we would say it is definitely good for you!).
We hope that readers of this blog, especially students, will feel that they can be more compassionate towards their (perceived) inadequacies and weaknesses, leading to better mental health.
Kotera, Y., Green, P., & Sheffield, D. (2018) Mental health attitudes, self-criticism, compassion, and role identity among UK social work students. British Journal of Social Work. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcy072