It was 2018 and I have just started a job at a UK university. The first day was hectic; my brain was overloaded with information, and I was meeting different faces in a short time of space, and each offering advice. My emotions were in full drive (over speeding I should say) with a sprinkle of anxiety.
My role as a mental health adviser (MHA) was new at that university; therefore, I had to start from scratch, I was excited. You see, I am a mental health practitioner (best decision ever made). This was my first job outside the NHS where I had been a mentor to several nursing students, and nothing compares to the privilege of engaging and facilitating the development of future generations of nurses.
Educating nurses is so rewarding that even when students could no longer be sent on placements due to Covid restrictions during the lockdown, some amazing researchers like Dr Clementinah Rooke pushed the envelope by introducing interdepartmental working between drama and nursing students where they acted out scenarios involving patients to help prepare the nursing students for situations they could encounter during placement. I believe it is the nurse’s passion for what they do that becomes breeding ground for creativity, then all the other rewards follow. The more I supported students the more rewarding it was; and that’s why I pursued this role of MHA.
How can we improve student learning experience?
Firstly, I had to draw on equality, diversity, and inclusion while treating every student as an individual, actively listened to what they said, and what they didn’t. It gave me a holistic insight into the experiences of university students. I quickly learned about what I refer to as ‘reverse assessment’, meaning students were assessing me as I was assessing them, and they chose what to tell me or not to tell.
Many worried if any disclosure about mental health could impact on their studies negatively. I had to develop a strategy on how to encourage students to share their difficult experiences so that the university could support them better. I revisited the most essential skill of MH nursing ‘establishing rapport’.
Good rapport improves chances of a positive outcome, and it makes both the professional and the one seeking support more human. So, my objective was to remove this barrier of hierarchy to establish mutual rapport to encourage students to open up, rather than suffer in silence. Music and sports were great conversation starters amongst many other topics like climate change, world injustice, and even Brexit got a few mentions.
A few years into this role after engaging with a lot of students my inquisitiveness, which another skill nursing gave me, noticed something: although we had a lot in common with students, I noticed an apparent difference between the mental health of students who practicsd faith or spirituality, and those who did not. My curiosity was aroused, was this a coincidence?
The role of spirituality
Spirituality, faith, religion, and atheism are words that tend to be inflammatory, uncomfortable, sensitive, and often not used in the same sentence but, (and this is a big but) I thought it was safe to tackle the elephant in the room. Spirituality is often conflated with religion and although there are some overlapping qualities, the two are different. Professor Melanie Rodgers succinctly put it this way: ‘Spirituality is much broader as it concerns what gives each of us hope, meaning and purpose, such as a pet, or work, or relationships.’ Faith, on the other hand, is belief in something that is beyond senses; it says there is something bigger than me and in so doing sparking trust.
Among the many students I interacted with and supported, those who reported practising some faith or spirituality appeared to be more hopeful, positive, and flourishing compared to those who were not. They reported praying for each other, worshiping together, studying scriptures, or simply the joy of the responsibility of looking after or being part of something which in turn was positive and formed part of their support. I asked students whether they believed there is a power bigger than them, interestingly those who identified as atheists usually said: ‘LOL, I don’t know!’ Others who practised spirituality or faith usually mentioned that their belief in a deity or bigger power had helped them to be patient with themselves and they felt loved and hopeful.
Is it their faith or faithfulness?
You see Faith is outside of the self, while Faithfulness focuses on inside the self. Faithfulness calls for one to be reliable, consistent, or trustworthy and in so doing it becomes breeding ground for discipline and other positive traits. On the other hand, because Faith is concerned with an external force or thing, it becomes the question of how reliable and trustworthy that which they believe in, is.
In other words, whether is it the student’s faithfulness to their faith or the power of their faith that gives them a buffer against mental health challenges; either way the outcomes tend to be positive.
Most faiths, religions, and spiritual beliefs are underpinned by similar principles: love, compassion, care, empathy. And as nurses this is our bread and butter. I have learned that showing a student compassion, empathy or treating them with respect can be as effective as medication or any other interventions. A simple act of noticing something new about a student and verbalising it to them; verbalising something nice about them (Did you had a haircut? I like your shoes.) Or a simple ‘How are you today?’ and actually listen to them without interrupting.
Sometimes students may share something they know you can’t fix but just listening to them can be very therapeutic. Empathy is like when someone falls into a ditch and you hear them shouting, you then get a ladder and climb down into the ditch just to be with them and listen. Overall, interacting with students, for me remains a privilege and I hope that no matter what they believe in, I will continue to support students.
Ronalds Busulwa is a PhD student at the University of Huddersfield. Ronalds’s research project is exploring the role of faith in the mental health of Black students.