How positive psychology can help students’ mental health

The growing concern in many UK universities about student mental health has been well documented, with a quarter of students reported to have some type of mental health problem. Here, Yasuhiro Kotera, Academic Lead in Counselling, Psychotherapy and Psychology at the University of Derby Online Learning (UDOL), examines the mental health of social work students in more depth and explores positive psychology as a possible solution to the problem.

Social work is a popular degree subject. In the UK, 70 per cent of graduates were employed as a social worker within six months of graduation, creating nearly 2,900 qualified social workers in employment in 2015, and the number has been increasing. However, once in their chosen career, it is reported that 80 per cent of social workers feel emotional distress and 42 per cent are verbally abused at work.

Understanding mental health shame in social workers

Following our first research paper, which identified students’ mental health shame, in this paper we’ve explored if positive psychological can be helpful for their mental health. Positive psychology is a relatively new area of psychology, different from traditional symptom-based psychology, focusing on our happiness and wellbeing. While traditional psychology often aims to alleviate negative symptoms, positive psychology often focuses on enhancing positive psychological constructs.

We have collected responses from social work students across the UK on psychometric scales about mental health and positive psychological constructs, namely resilience, self-compassion, motivation and engagement.

We examined the relationships among these variables. Their mental health was associated with resilience, self-compassion, and engagement. Students who had less mental health problems tended to be more resilient, kind to themselves, and well-engaged with their academic work. Furthermore, we examined if those variables would predict their mental health.

Self-compassion was a negative predictor of mental health problems. Resilience did not predict mental health problems, and surprisingly intrinsic motivation was a positive predictor of mental health problems, i.e. when you see a student who is intrinsically motivated to study, you can predict they have mental health problems.

Our findings:

  1. Instead of offering ‘mental health training/workshops’, which could shame attending students, offering training/workshops focusing on enhancing kindness towards themselves (self-compassion) may be a good alternative, as this type of training can bypass their mental health shame
  2. Not predicting mental health may be related to the current debate on the theory that the word resilience is used too broadly, and sometimes in a wrong way. For example, while resilience needs to be understood holistically, considering the person’s environment or family situation, it is often understood as one individual construct. Or some students or educators judge their level of resilience based on their temporal mental health state, missing that resilience is a quality that can be developed
  3. While previous literature repeatedly reports that intrinsic motivation is beneficial to our mental health, our results suggest otherwise — a novel finding in this study. This may be explained by their high self-criticism. Students who are passionate about learning with high self-criticism may attack themselves for not meeting certain standards. Obsessive passion (uncontrollable compulsion to initiate a passionate activity) may be present in this group of students, instead of harmonious passion (balanced engagement with the activity). We are now planning to examine this mechanism of when intrinsic motivation backfires to our mental health. 

As awareness of mental health grows among UK universities, shame and stigma around mental health are also noted. Augmenting positive psychology can be one alternative means to help students’ mental health.  

For further press information please contact the Corporate Communications Team on 01332 591491, pressoffice@derby.ac.uk or @derbyunipress

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