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Mental health and fieldwork

For Mental Health Awareness Week, the Geological Society is looking at ways to support the wellbeing of geoscience students and professionals. In this second of four blogs, Lesley Batty explores how fieldwork can affect the mental health and wellbeing of students.

Fieldwork is a core skill for many subjects and is a requirement for accreditation of degrees by the Geological Society.  This can provide a significant barrier to participation for students with physical disabilities, which in recent years has led to increasing interest in the development of inclusive fieldwork [1]. However, barriers to participation for those with mental health (MH) conditions are not as well understood.  This is becoming increasingly important as the number of students declaring a mental health disability has risen from 15% in 2013/14 to 23% in 17/18. This however, is likely to be the tip of the iceberg as it has been shown that mental health conditions are underreported due to stigma (which can vary according to culture, gender, sexuality and discipline) and lack of awareness of importance and/or availability of support [2]. 

Whilst students are on campus, access to support from wellbeing or welfare officers, health practitioners and other support networks can allow existing conditions to be managed effectively in the context of academic work. However, fieldwork, and particularly residential fieldwork presents a range of additional challenges that can negatively impact on student learning and engagement.  In this piece, I will highlight some of the key challenges that staff might need to consider when designing and preparing for fieldwork based on my own experiences.   This takes an inclusive curricula approach, as while specific adjustments can be made for students with diagnosed conditions, a significant proportion may not disclose their illness, or may not have a diagnosis.  In addition, many of the changes that can be made to curricula can benefit all students.

A common language

It is first important to distinguish between mental health illness and wellbeing, which are terms often used interchangeably or inappropriately.  Thorley [2] provides some clear definitions of this terminology:

Mental Illness relates to where an individual experiences the symptoms of one or more clinically diagnosable mental health condition.  These conditions can range from severe and enduring –such as bipolar disorder and psychosis-to more common conditions such as depression and anxiety.  An individual with a mental illness may or may not have received a diagnosis, and may or may not be seeking or receiving treatment. They do, however, experience symptoms which meet the threshold for a diagnosis.

Mental Distress relates to where an individual reports negative mental health, but where it is not clear that this meets the threshold for a clinical diagnosis.  It can be considered where individuals self-report mental health problems which have not been subject to clinical screening measures.

Wellbeing relates to the extent which an individual is feeling good and functioning positively.

Where students have an existing diagnosed mental illness, it is advisable to work with the student and their disability advisor in advance of any fieldwork as adjustments may be more complex than those outlined below and in the next blog, which are designed to provide a more supportive environment. It is also important to note that a person’s mental health can deteriorate at any point, and fieldwork can entail stressors that contribute to this.

Fieldwork and stress

The most important thing to recognise with residential fieldwork is that students (and staff) are being removed from their normal daily structures and their support networks, with possible impacts on wellbeing.  Those individuals that have existing MH conditions are likely to have a set of techniques that help them to manage on a day to day basis which may not be available to them or reduced on fieldwork.  Friends, family and health care professionals may be a critical source of support and therefore when looking at options for fieldcourse locations, try and ensure that communications are available in some way with ‘home’.  This doesn’t necessarily have to be full internet access as long as some type of communication is available. In some cases, communications may be very limited and this may require additional consideration of support available from staff on the fieldcourse.  Ensure that there is time in the day set aside for communications with home and for any other activities that people may need.

Generally speaking, the more information that you provide to students before the fieldwork the better, as this will allow them to consider whether any adjustments might be needed.   However, make sure that information it timely (i.e. not the day before you go) and clearly presented. It is a good idea to provide opportunities for students to discuss concerns that they may have and provide a range of options (i.e. welfare/wellbeing officers, tutors etc). At my own institution we have been using virtual fieldcourses to prepare students for the field, using them not only to provide experience of the types of landscape, pre-fieldcourse reading and activities, but also the accommodation. This can alleviate some of the anxieties around the unknown and allow students to better consider some of the challenges that they may face.  

Photo by Nubia Navarro from Pexels

Broadening risk assessments

When preparing fieldcourses, we are all used to providing a risk assessment which should include evacuation procedures in case of accidents. This should now also include consideration of potential MH issues such as situations that might be seen as triggers for particular phobias such as confined spaces, heights etc.  It is unlikely that you will be faced with a critical MH incident in a remote location, but it could happen and therefore evacuation procedures should be planned beforehand.  The main difference here is in managing the situation until emergency services can arrive, and this is the situation that most of my colleagues feel unable to deal with. 

In relation to physical injury most organisations will provide staff with first aid training, some specifically designed for fieldwork. However, we are falling behind when it comes to mental health.  Mental Health First Aid training is available, but this is not designed for remote locations and is more aligned to longer term monitoring.  Therefore, there is an urgent need for more specific training for staff conducting remote fieldwork.

In my next blog, I will discuss common MH concerns, and some straightforward accommodations that can help reduce overall risk.

References

[1] Stokes, A., Feig, A. Atchison, C.  & Gilley, B (2019). Making geoscience fieldwork inclusive and accessible for students with disabilities. Geosphere. 10.1130/GES02006.1.

[2] Thorley, C (2017) Not By Degrees: Improving Student Mental Health in the UK’s Universities. Institute for Public Policy Research, London

Dr Lesley Batty is a Reader in Ecological Education at the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham

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