3 mental wellbeing initiatives that are bringing joy to students

How are higher education students going to be supported with their mental health during a pandemic? If you know of any initiatives I’d love to hear about them in the comments section. Mental health has always been a topic close to my heart. Working within education I am particularly interested in students’ mental health and this year’s university students are going to have a very different experience to what you or I had. Packed lecture theatres are, for now, a thing of the past, and freshers are having to form important new friendships whilst also maintaining social distance. This is bound to impact mental health, so I started to look into what new initiatives might be in place this coming year.

In 2015/16, over 15,000 first-year students in UK universities reported that they had a mental health problem, compared to just 3,000 back in 2006. Today, three-quarters of adults with a mental illness will first experience symptoms before the age of 25. We are now in unprecedented times as we navigate our way through a global pandemic. Around half of all young adults will access higher education by the time they are 30, pandemic or not. So, now, more than ever there is a great need for mental health support. This is a very serious crisis, but the methods of providing support are fun and they are designed to bring joy – so read on as we delve into the uplifting solutions offered from within UK Higher Education.

1. The science of happiness course

In 2018 Bristol University launched a ten-week Science of Happiness course, creating a delightful opportunity for students to learn about wellbeing. The course was inspired by Yale University’s Psychology and Good Life course, which was the most popular in the university’s history with one in four students enrolling.

In the first year Bristol University made the ten-week course optional. It had no impact on the student’s overall grade. With no incentive other than to learn about their mental health, 400 students signed up to the course, highlighting the demand for mental health education.

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Due to popularity, the course returned in 2019, this time counting towards 20 of the students 120 credits for their first year. The course starts by asking students to measure their own happiness levels and discover personal strengths, which will then be developed and reflected upon as the course plays out. Lectures cover a range of topics including how our minds distort happiness, the role of culture in happiness and a look at whether happiness is in our genes. Students are asked to try one of seven happiness exercises such as sleeping more, meditating and practising random acts of kindness.

You can find out more about the course here.

2. Therapy pets

Therapy pets are service animals that are trained to provide affection and comfort, which is as wonderful as it sounds! There are charities that can bring animals to visit people on site in places such as hospitals, care homes and universities to provide support in various stressful environments. You may think that concept of therapy pets sounds like a new fad however there is evidence of therapy pets being used as far back as ancient Greece where they would use horses to lift the spirits of the severely ill. Not sure how I would feel about a horse at my bedside!

In a university setting, therapy pets are more popular in the US with around 1,000 campuses using them. However, popularity is starting to rise in the UK. The University of Middlesex has recently put ‘canine teaching assistants’ on the staff to try and prevent lonely students from dropping out. Several students have said the canine teaching assistants have made them feel more connected to home as they missed their own family pet.

I know first-hand how effective therapy pets can be on your mental health. When I attended the University of Sunderland, we would frequently get visits from farm animals as a form of stress therapy. There is something about seeing a farm animal in an unexpected setting that took me out of the day-to-day life of university and immediately put a smile on my face. For those few minutes I was petting a goat, holding a rabbit or just watching the ducks waddle around I totally forgot about any deadlines I had looming or exams I needed to revise for. Just writing about it is making me smile. One study has found that playing with a dog or cat can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax you. I imagine the same must be true, to some extent, of interacting with any animal be it a dog or a goat. I would feel calm for hours after a visit from our farm yard friends.

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3. Partnerships with Mind

Ten universities across the UK, including University of Bath, University of Sheffield and Teesside University are taking part in the Mentally Healthy Universities programme, in partnership with Mind. The programme wants to reach over 6,000 students and aim to achieve its five goals by August 2021:

Ensure students are equipped to manage their mental health and thrive at university.
Ensure students have the knowledge and tools to build their resilience.
Ensure students are prepared to manage their mental health in future employment.
Reduce stigma and improve peer support for university staff.
Make positive changes to the way universities think and act about mental health.
The programme has got off to a great start. During the first year over 85 per cent of students had a better understanding of mental health problems and wellbeing. Over 90 per cent of students who took part in the ‘tools and techniques to manage your mental health’ course said they were more confident looking after their mental health and 100 per cent said they would recommend the course to a friend. Who can argue with stats like that?

Programmes like this just show that giving someone the tools to maintain their mental health is proving successful. It’s also something I witnessed first-hand at a recent webinar series we ran. Our keynote speaker was a mental health expert and in her 30-minute talk, which discussed a few simple techniques to maintaining positive wellbeing, we saw a clear shift in the audience’s attitude towards remote working. Check out the before and after mood boards below:

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2020…and beyond

There’s no denying that this year has provided a unique set of challenges that have called for us to be more aware of our mental health. When lockdown hit, I decided to download the couch to 5K app. At first it was a way to get fit and do something worthwhile with my time outside. I quickly grew to love it and could feel the benefits it was having on my mental health. As I’ve mentioned above, our own mental health is unique. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you. That’s why I find it really positive that universities are trying different ways to support their students. They know mental health isn’t a one size fits all and you don’t know what is going to fit if you don’t try.

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I’ve written this blog to get the conversation rolling so don’t be shy – let me know your thoughts on these mental health initiatives. Do you know of any different initiatives that universities are using? Do you think this is money well spent? Do you think there will still be a need after the pandemic?

It doesn’t just have to be comments about my blog. Feel free to leave pictures of your pets, even if they aren’t a trained therapy pet. After all, it has been scientifically proven that animals can boost your mood.

Dyslexia – the unknown superpower

When you hear the term superpower what do you think of? X-ray vision, invisibility, or my personal favourite the ability to fly? Imagine a world where you could fly to work rather than catch an overcrowded bus. Of course, all these superpowers are the work of the imagination but what if there was a real superpower that around 10% of the UK population had? A superpower that gave those people the unique ability to think differently, see the world differently. Well you’ve probably already heard of it; I’m talking about dyslexia.

Over the last few months, I’d been aware of dyslexia making it into the headlines. This Morning host, Holly Willoughby, has recently spoken about the struggles she experienced having dyslexia. Earlier in the year Strictly Come Dancing star AJ Pritchard and his brother Curtis discussed growing up with dyslexia. Even royalty have spoken out about dyslexia. In May, Princess Beatrice spoke about her life with the learning difficulty. This got me wondering what other well-known dyslexics there were and how their unique ability might have empowered them to achieve their goals.

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Dyslexia can throw a whole host of challenges at you on a daily basis. But the different perspective it gives you can also provide you with a whole host of solutions. Read on to feel inspired, like I did, as I share my research into how these well-known dyslexics overcame the challenges they faced, not in spite of their learning disability but often because of it.

Sally Gardner – Award-winning author

You may think being dyslexic would mean you wouldn’t excel in reading and writing. Award winning children’s author, Sally Gardner, proves that is not the case. Yes, she found reading and writing difficult growing up, which was not helped by the lack of support she received. Her teachers labelled her ‘unteachable’ which contributed to her learning to read at the age of 14. However, once she left mainstream school and joined art college there was no stopping her. She was in a learning environment that suited her strengths. She left art college with a first-class honours degree and won a prestigious award to become a theatre designer.

Between 2005 and 2007 her children’s books were shortlisted for the British Children’s Book of the Year and the Stockton Children’s Book of the Year as well as winning Nestlé Children’s Book Prize for ages 9 to 11 years.

Sally has become an advocate for dyslexia awareness. She has conducted many interviews and talks where she addresses the way dyslexia gave Sally her success. In a 2014 interview with The Guardian, for Dyslexia Awareness Week, she said “It’s taken me years to be proud of having dyslexia. So, if you have it, be brave… I think dyslexia has amazing gifts to give, so don’t despair. Your gift is there.”

John Lennon – World-renowned musician

As I grew up just outside Liverpool, it wouldn’t feel right if my list didn’t include at least one Scouser. Like many dyslexics John Lennon was never officially diagnosed. However, he had several traits that are common with dyslexia, for example difficulty spelling and retaining information. A fan of music from an early age, he would find it difficult to remember other people’s music and lyrics. He would therefore make up his own words to the melody. A coping mechanism that he used to build a whole career in song writing that the world over would come to know well and love.

Whoopi Goldberg – EGOT-winning actress

Whoopi Goldberg has had an amazing career, which started at the age of 14. At one point she was the highest paid female actor in Hollywood and is also one of only 15 people to have won an EGOT (an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award). I personally feel her best work is Sister Act and Sister Act 2, which I have been known to watch back to back on more than one occasion. Growing up she was often labelled as lazy or stupid by her teachers due to her dyslexia. Being dyslexic meant she learnt differently to the ‘conventional’ way. She would retain information a lot easier if it was told to her but would struggle with any written information. She’s taken this way of learning into her acting career and will often get people to read her script to her to help her memorise the lines.

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Cher – Singer and Oscar winning actress

Like many people growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s American singer, and my go to karaoke artist, Cher, went through school without being diagnosed with dyslexia. It wasn’t until she was 30 and her son was being assessed for dyslexia that she realised they shared some of the same learning traits and she got herself assessed.

Growing up she found it difficult to read quickly enough to get her homework done. Unfortunately, there wasn’t the knowledge or support there is today. Since discovering she was dyslexic, she has worn the label with pride. When asked if she would change having dyslexia she replied “No! It caused pain, but it’s me!”

Jamie Oliver – Chef and restaurateur

Unlike the well-known people above, celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, was diagnosed with dyslexia while he was still in school. Like many dyslexics he found he performed best in creative subjects, where he needed to use his hands.

At secondary school Jamie’s dyslexia got him labelled as ‘special needs’ and for five years he received extra support. Discussing his time at school Jamie said “I was given all the support for the time but it wasn’t my place to shine.”

I’ve no doubt Jamie Oliver would have benefitted from the likes of Sally Gardner and Whoopi Goldberg speaking out about their experiences with dyslexia, even if it was just a case of teachers getting a better understanding of how to personalise learning to meet the individual’s needs.   

 Leonardo da Vinci – Renaissance artist and engineer

Famous for painting the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci grew up over 400 years before dyslexia was even discovered. Therefore, it’s impossible to know for sure if he did have the learning difficulty. However, his work displays many traits associated with dyslexia. Not only did he excel in creative activities such as painting but he also had several different ways of writing the same word, he would often write his notes in reverse mirror image, a trait which is sometimes shared by left-handed dyslexic adults. 

Something to be proud of

Many of the people I have mentioned were given labels rather than seen as individuals. Despite this, they found ways on their own to adapt their learning, whether that be getting someone to read the information to them or excelling in creative subjects. These individuals understood the value they could provide even when the environment they were in was not able to provide the support and tools they needed. Today, we have numerous specialist software and dyslexia support professionals who are highly skilled at understanding an individual and helping them find their superpower.

Like all good superpowers, having a learning disability can also leave individuals subject to criticism. Many people with learning difficulties also report mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, often caused by frustration and low self-esteem experienced in the classroom.

The eagle eyed among you may have noticed our company logos have looked slightly different this month. Throughout October we have been celebrating Dyslexia Awareness Month by joining the #GoRedForDyslexia campaign. You can find out more about this here. By getting involved in #GoRedForDyslexia and more well-known dyslexics coming forward and shouting about their super power I hope we can see an end to the stigma dyslexics can still encounter. I’d like to end with this quote by John Lennon which I think can apply, not just to people with dyslexia but anyone who feels they might be slightly different and not sure how to embrace this:

“You don’t need anybody to tell you who you are or what you are. You are what you are!”

Four AT innovations in 2020 that could help combat challenges of the pandemic

There seems to be a national day for everything. Some are just plain ridiculous – anyone planning on celebrating ‘Pretend to be a time traveller day’? However, some national days are useful at highlighting a particular issue. The 18th November – 20th December is UK Disability History Month. It was while I was researching UK Disability History Month that I came across an article by the World Health Organisation that stated ‘only one in ten people in need have access to assistive technology’. There can be a whole host of reasons behind this figure such as lack of availability, training and/or funding etc. Assistive technology (AT) is such a broad term covering everything from toothbrushes to robots and with new products frequently coming onto the market it can be difficult to make sure you’re aware of all the new developments. That’s why this month, at the end of 2020, I decided to share with you my favourite AT finds from the past 12 months. I’d love to know your thoughts on any of the below AT, especially if you have had any first-hand experience of it. Also let me know if you think there’s a new and innovative AT that I missed off my list.

1. Robots vs poor mental health

There’s no denying 2020 has seen the topic of mental health come to the foreground. With local and national lockdowns causing large amounts of the country to spend time away from friends and family, people have been dealing with mental health conditions that they may not have experienced prior to the pandemic. One of the main issues being loneliness. Earlier this year robots were used in a number of care homes to help tackle the issue of loneliness.

The robots can move independently and gesture with robotic arms and hands. After some initial programming, the robots can learn about the interests of the care home residents, have basic conversations with them and even play their favourite music or teach them a new language.

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Trials showed care home residents who interacted with the robots had a significant improvement in their mental health. You may think this sounds like something from a sci-fi film, I know I did when I read about it, but robots are not a new concept. Is this not just a step up from having Siri or Alexa available at the sound of your voice?

Before the pandemic it was reported that 45% of adults feel occasionally, sometimes or often lonely in England. This equates to twenty million people. Research by Sense has shown that up to 50% of disabled people will be lonely on any given day. Could we eventually live in a world where robots are commonplace to prevent feelings of loneliness? Not sure it gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling, but this is certainly a positive use of innovative technology for a very current, growing issue.

2. Smart glove signing vs face mask barriers

With social distancing coming into effect and face coverings become the literal must-have fashion accessory, 2020 has made us rethink the way we communicate with each other. The way you communicate with someone should empower you, not restrict you.

Earlier this year, bioengineers in America revealed a glove that can translate American Sign Language to speech in real time. The glove contains thin, stretchable sensors which run to the fingertips and can pick up motions and finger placement thanks to electronically conducting yarn – I’m not sure you’ll find that on the shelves in Hobbycraft! The device turns the finger movements into electrical signals which are sent to a small piece of circuit board (about the same size of a coin) which the user wears on their wrist. The circuit board then transmits these signals, via Bluetooth, to an app on your smartphone or tablet which will then display what has been signed.

This AT could not have come at a better time. AT can help people with hearing impairments communicate with a wider audience, whilst maintaining their social distance. However, it’s important to not take AT developments, like this one, for granted. I will still be increasing my sign language vocabulary so that I can also communicate with a wider audience.

Last year eQS held a lunch ‘n’ learn session on sign language, which was one of my favourite lunch ‘n’ learn sessions ever. Thanks to the session, and a campaign we ran during Deaf Awareness Week this year, I can sign ‘Hello. My name is Emma’ and ‘Stay home. Stay safe,’ and hopefully we will have another workshop next year so I can pick up some basic conversational skills.

3. Reading devices vs too much screen time

Earlier this year the OrCam Read was released and I was lucky enough to try it out. It is a portable reading device, created to support those with visual impairments but also as an aid for dyslexia or reading fatigue.

Trying this first-hand was a useful way of understanding how this could empower individuals with dyslexia or reading fatigue. With remote learning becoming the norm in 2020, some students have found it difficult to adapt to this new way of learning, which has increased our screen time. The OrCam Read helps them learn independently while they are away from the conventional classroom setting. As I found out first-hand, it can also help with day-to-day activities like baking that instagrammable banana bread we all tried our hand at during lockdown.

The device has two modes. Frame mode, where a frame appears that you position around the specific text you want read aloud, and pointer mode which displays a single red dot which allows you to more accurately select a specific word to start reading from.

I started a new book called ‘Three Women’ by Lisa Taddeo and used this as an opportunity to try it out. After staring at a laptop all day, it was nice to have something read aloud to me and saved straining my eyes, especially with it getting dark about 3pm at the moment. I also used it while I was whipping up some mince pies. I got the OrCam Read to snapshot the whole recipe then, using the pause, play and skip buttons, I had the recipe read to me as I went along.

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4. Eye-movement control vs isolation

The world’s first eye-controlled device for iPad Pro was also released this year. Skyle has two tracing devices which detect your eye movement and turns them into pointer movements on your iPad, enabling users with conditions such as cerebral palsy, ALS and spinal cord injuries to use all the features of their iPad Pro.

By having this functionality users can experience new independence and benefits that come from being able to easily stay in contact with friends and family electronically via Zoom calls and social media. Something that has become the norm during the pandemic, especially for those having to shield at home for falling into a higher risk category.

Sadly, the Skyle is only available to use with iPad Pros but a year ago this device wasn’t even on the market so hopefully, as more people discover it and the demand for variations becomes apparent, it will become available for all devices.

To see how empowering this particular AT is to someone who is suffering from ALS, check out the review below, which was written by only using the Skyle:

What will the future hold?

AT users can experience greater independence thanks to new AT developments, and as Pretend to Be a Time Traveller Day took place this month why not envision how you think AT could progress in the future? Do you have an innovative idea? Or is there an issue that isn’t currently supported any existing AT? Just think, if the above innovations happened over the last year, imagine what could be available in five, ten, even twenty years? Maybe we’ll see AT go to infinity and beyond.

“A problem shared is a problem halved”. Three techniques that are driving positive conversations about mental health in 2021.

Congratulations! You have made it to the end of January. It’s no secret January can be one of the toughest months of the year when it comes to mental health. On top of its usual challenges, January this year was like no other due to the global pandemic. With this in mind I wanted to look at the positives out there, so I have been looking at innovative resources that are available to support people’s mental health.

As I was researching this topic one thing stood out. The main concept across the three resources I discovered was to get people talking about mental health. Dr Adrian James, the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has recently been reported as saying the coronavirus crisis poses the greatest threat to mental health since the second world war. Therefore, now more than ever it is important people don’t suffer in silence and know mental health is not a taboo subject. In a survey conducted by Time to Change, 61% of people asked said mental health stigma and discrimination is as worse as the problem itself. The pandemic has brought a new reality that we are all experiencing together. It’s created a sense of comradery which people are drawing on to discuss mental health. It’s important though that we don’t lose this post-Covid and still encourage conversations around mental health. Let me know via the comments at the end of this blog of any other mental health initiatives you’ve discovered that you think should be on the list below.

1. Nationwide awareness campaigns to get people talking

There are several mental health national days and weeks that run throughout the year such as Mental Health Awareness Week (18th – 24th May), National Suicide Prevention Day (10th September) and World Mental Health Awareness Day (10th October). The most recent mental health national day, Time to Talk Day, takes place next week (4th February) and aims to get people talking about mental health. During the run up to and on Time to Talk Day last year 2.26 million people talked about their mental health more than they usually would.

Time to Talk Day is about encouraging people to let someone know you’re listening, creating space to share openly, and being there for someone who may be struggling with their mental health.

Thanks to technology, even though we may be in lockdown, we can still take part in Time to Talk Day. This year they have created a card game, which aims to help open up the conversation around mental health. The cards contain different questions which one person reads out. Everyone else then guesses which answer the reader would choose. Their choice is then revealed and everyone discusses what was chosen and why. By having more than one scenario a conversation is more likely to occur as there are more options to discuss. You can download the cards here.

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Mental health problems aren’t going to go away once the pandemic is over. Statistically, 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health problem in any given year. The amount of people with common mental health problems went up by 20% between 1993 to 2014, in both men and women. To tackle mental health problems, we need to talk about mental health and listen to those conversations when they take place.

2. Social media entertainment that starts a trending conversation

Actor, comedian and mental health advocate, Joe Tracini, first piqued my interest during the first lockdown thanks to his flamboyant dance routines that he posted on Twitter (more on those later). However, he has been using his platform for a few years to open up and discuss his Borderline Personality Disorder and the effect this has on his mental health. Joe’s philosophy being; “if you feel alone tell somebody how you feel, and then you won’t be.” Joe has also often been educational with his humour, posting split screen videos where one half shows him and the other half shows his Borderline Personality Disorder. As someone who did not have much knowledge of Borderline Personality Disorder, I found these videos very powerful and interesting. They use humour to provide an insight into what Joe, and many others, are experiencing.

When lockdown started Joe decided to share his love of dance with the world to give him, and us, something else to concentrate on. Joe donned a sparkly leotard and talked his followers through unique dance moves such as ‘beef toe right’, ‘half eaten lobster’ and ‘bag for life’ (you need to see to understand – click to watch). These videos soon went viral and saw Joe appear on Good Morning Britain and even The Morning Show in Australia. Joe then used these platforms to encourage more people to open up about their mental health.

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In July it was reported that Twitter’s daily use numbers had jumped 24 percent since the start of the pandemic, while Facebook’s numbers were up 27 percent, making social media the perfect tool for starting conversations about mental health. However, if you find yourself doomscrolling, (consuming a large quantity of negative online news at once) why not put your phone down and bust out a ‘beef toe right’ or a ‘half eaten lobster’?

3. Digital learning resources that help build courage to talk

I don’t know about you but my phone is littered with apps. If I can’t be bothered to cook, I’ll open Deliveroo. When I’ve gone for a run, I’ll look at Strava to see how I’ve performed and when I’m in need of a pick me up I’ll log in to TikTok. While I was researching this blog I came across a mental health app called Woebot.

Woebot is an app which features an interesting concept that uses an AI therapy chatbot. It’s designed to help you monitor your mood using conversation.

Messenger apps are being used more than phone calls or text messages as a way of having conversations. In 2019 there were 65 billion WhatsApp messages being sent daily. It therefore makes sense that Woebot is set up just like messenger apps such as Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. I’m sure this familiarity would appeal to a generation that has grown up with the internet. Within seconds of it downloading I was talking to Woebot and gaining an insight into my mental health and because it felt familiar straight away, I was not left wondering what different buttons or menus do.

The app’s main function is to start conversations around mental health. One user said that they often use Woebot as ‘practice’ for talking to her friends and family about issues that might be affecting her. This idea of learning about yourself to gain courage to open up is something our team has built into the development of Learning Labs Plus. Our inhouse mental wellness tool (coming soon) is designed to empower people with knowledge around mental wellness. People can use our e-learning portal to learn about the subject of mental health, regularly assess their own mental wellness, take positive action to develop their mental wellness and then even share their account with a mentor to help guide their learning journey.

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Technology today can help us understand more about ourselves, which sometimes is the first step to being able to share that with someone else.

Let’s talk

In the spirit of this blog I’d love to start a conversation around mental health. Let me know in the comments if you have experience with any of the above (I’d particularly like to hear if you have tried one of Joe’s dance routines!) Do you feel you’ve had more conversations around mental health over the past few months or have you not noticed a difference? Either way I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. Watch this space as we will be talking more about supporting mental wellness in the coming months when Learning Labs Plus is officially launched.

I’d like to end with a quote from Joe Tracini which I think everyone could benefit from weather you’re reading this after living through January during a global pandemic or sat at your desk in a busy office in a post-Covid world.

“I always try to find laughter. Even at the moment, with everything that’s happening, I’m looking for laughter. Right now, laughter is playing hide and seek with us. It’s everywhere, so turn around, count to ten, open your eyes and start looking.”