How are you? Mental Health Awareness in Higher Education

Earlier this month, TimetoTalk held their first ever time to talk day, to encourage us to talk about mental health, by doing simple things, like asking people how they are when you meet them.  Since university mental health awareness week (with a focal day on 19th February) ends today, and bearing in mind my experience with students, I feel the time is ripe to do as the organizations have been urging, and help raise awareness of student mental health. Here goes…

I’ll frame it around the lecture I’m giving this evening. Part of the lecture is about the power of descriptive group norms to guide behaviour. This has been shown powerfully in studies by Dr. Andrew Livingstone, now at the University of Exeter. His research focused on students, and showed that participants with a positive attitude to heavy drinking and who identified strongly with the ingroup reported stronger intentions to drink heavily even when the ingroup had a moderate, drinking norm, indicating resistance to the normative information, and an insistence on carrying on drinking. But  – low identifiers would only promote heavy  drinking when the group norm was also said to be for heavy drinking: when they were likely to have strong social support for drinking.

What on earth has that got to do with student mental health? Well, let’s think about students who privately hold a good attitude to mental health, and mental health services, even if they know that there might be some stigma attached to them. The above research might be used to argue that if these students believed that there was a  student group norm for experiencing mental distress, and  towards using mental health services when needed, regardless of how far they identify as students, they would tend towards accepting this norm, and acting in accordance with it.

The statistics support that lots of students do experience mental distress, and that there is a  positive student group norm towards mental health services. In a recent NUS study 47% of students said that they would recommend university support services to a student in need. Stress and lack of motivation were experienced by 80% and 70% of the sample respectively, and more and more students are making use of counselling services, year-on-year. In fact, a fifth of students surveyed had been diagnosed with a mental health problem. And 74% of students in distress managed to tell someone about their problems.

This research shows that mental health problems are common at university. It also shows, that even if it might seem uncomfortable, it’s normative to talk, if you get distressed. It’s OK to talk, too, and the services are available. To add anecdote to evidence, most of the students, who in the years I’ve been teaching,  have just popped in through my open-door without appointment, have done so with a mental health related concern. It’s normal.

So, how are you? If you need help, talk to someone. Call a friend, make that counselling appointment, or call Nightline, or the Samaritans. Help is there. And if you’re a nearby student, I have tea, and biscuits in my office, and it wouldn’t be good for me to eat them all myself….


The Smell of Rebellion


For children who aren’t listening,
For midgets who are fidgeting
And whispering in history,
Their chattering and chittering,
Their nattering and twittering,
Is tempered with a smattering of

We must begin insisting
On rigidity and discipline,
Persistently resisting
This anarchistic mischieving.
These minutes you are frittering
On pandering and pitying
While little ones like this
They just want discipline.
The simpering and whimpering,
The dribbling and the spittling,
The ‘Miss, I need a tissue’
Is an issue we can fix.
There is no mystery to mastering
The art of classroom mistressing.
It’s discipline, discipline, discipline!
Read more: Matilda London Cast – The Smell Of Rebellion 

So sings Miss Trunchbull in Matilda, at the Cambridge Theatre (go see it: it’s fab). Miss Trunchbull isn’t the only one who has found the pong of dissent most insulting. A recent BBC News article highlights Michael Gove’s encouragement to teachers to “get tough”.

“Our message to teachers is clear – don’t be afraid to get tough on bad behaviour and use these punishments. The best schools already ask pupils who are behaving poorly to make it up to their teachers and fellow pupils through community service. I want more schools to follow their example by making badly-behaved pupils pick up litter or help clear up the dining hall after meal times.”

He, of course, has his critics. Also last week, I was pointed to another news piece, where a school are arguably also going “back in time”. But this was an interesting juxtaposition with the above statement from Michael Gove, since this school had gone back to allowing rough and tumble play (Bulldog, anyone?) , and abolition of formal school rules. You can learn more about this below


For me, the interesting thing about these stories, aside from their seeming antithesis to each other was the reduction in bullying reported by the New Zealand school. It is argued here that losing formal school rules has led to a reduction in bullying since children are no longer bored at break times.

Notwithstanding the fact that break times are only one place where bullying can occur, this presents us with an empirical question. Does having tougher discipline regime in schools lead to better behaviour and/or less bullying?

Studies have shown that a cooperative, supportive environment reduces bullying levels. Rivers and Soutter (1996) showed that a school with a strong cooperative norm (a Steiner school) had low levels of bullying. Nipedal, Nesdale, & Killen (2010) examined how far a school norm of inclusion (“that this school wants all the children to like kids in other groups and to be friendly toward them,” p. 200) would moderate the effects of an inclusive (“if the participant wanted to be a part of the team, they must like and include all the members of all other teams,” p. 200) or exclusive (“if the participant wanted to be a part of the team, they must not like or be friendly to any members of the other teams,” p. 200) peer group norm on children’s intentions to aggress. They found that the inclusive school norm did attenuate the effect of peer group norm, particularly in the case of indirect aggression.

There is lots of research on school climate and bullying – more than I could discuss here.   Gregory et al (2010) found in their study of  7 318 9th grade students and 2922 teachers from 290 schools in Virginia that consistent enforcement of discipline (structure) and the availability of caring adults (support) were associated with school safety. Student perspectives of structure and support in their school environment were also associated with less student bullying and victimization after accounting for other school-related factors. This suggests that “tough” policies should be combined with “support” policies for best effect.

There is also research on the link between school rules and classroom behaviour. Research suggests that classrooms with high levels of positive and supportive teacher–student interactions help in reducing student aggression (Pianta, & Stuhlman, 2007). Mitchell and Bradshaw (2013)  used data from 1902 students within 93 classrooms that were nested within 37 elementary schools  to investigate the association between exclusionary discipline and the use of positive behavior support. Analyses indicated that greater use of exclusionary discipline was associated with lower order and discipline scores, whereas greater use of  positive behavior support was associated with higher scores on order and discipline and student–teacher relationship. So, teachers’ should use positive rather than exclusionary discipline strategies in order to enhance conditions for learning.

And on inspection, the concept of school rules wasn’t abolished entirely in the New Zealand school. Rather, from nothing, as situations arose (“not enough sticks for everyone to play with”, children talked with their teachers, and new agreements were made “community stick pile”). The rules were divised from the bottom-up, rather than being imposed upon them. Maybe that’s the key. In my PhD research, I found that peer group norms were more likely to be condoned than school norms: maybe that was why – children don’t have so much control over school rules, tough, or otherwise…

Either way, there is evidence concerning different discipline strategies in schools, and their link to bad behaviour in class. I wonder if Michael Gove and his advisers have consulted it?