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Supporting mental health in the field

For Mental Health Awareness Week, the Geological Society is looking at ways to support the wellbeing of geoscience students and professionals. In this third of four blogs, Lesley Batty shares examples of straightforward ways to support the wellbeing of students undertaking fieldwork.

As discussed in part one of this blog, being away from home and normal support structures can affect wellbeing or make managing a mental health (MH) condition more challenging. One of the key actions a field leader can take is to provide an itinerary for each day, giving information on sites, activities and factoring in breaks periodically during the day.  Sometimes providing approximate timings can also be helpful but be careful that if you do provide these, that you stick to them, as deviation from a plan can be a stressor for certain conditions.  

More generally it is tempting for us to pack as much as possible into the field course, but we need to get away from this thinking.  Downtime is absolutely essential for maintaining wellbeing for all, however people choose to spend this.  Field courses can be very intense and require close contact with other people for much of the time. This can be extremely challenging for many people and therefore allowing space in the timetable for ‘alone’ time is advisable. It would also be helpful to provide at least one designated quiet room in the accommodation for people to use for this purpose.  It may also be helpful to provide a specific time each day where staff are available for individual consultation in case of any concerns during the course and a quiet, confidential space should be available for this.

Students may be taking medication and these can have a range of side effects that may impact on student performance on the field course. For example, common side effects of anti-depressants can include tiredness and lethargy, increased appetite and/or thirst.  It is impossible to consider all possible scenarios here, but by providing clear information on how days are structured and ensuring that there are sufficient breaks can help students to plan. If there is no pharmacy in the local area, make sure that this is made clear beforehand so that sufficient medication is taken., especially where fieldwork is for longer periods of time.

Photo by Rodney Knous from FreeImages

Accommodation is probably one of the most difficult parts of the field course to manage.   We are often constrained by what is available in the area as well as costs and capacity for accommodating (often) large numbers.  It is advisable to ensure that there are some single rooms available for students with specific requirements.  There is always a debate around whether it is better to assign students to rooms or to allow for them to choose groups (this is also applies to working groups). Some students prefer to choose their groups as this means they can get support via existing friendships, however some students may have difficulty with personal relationships and may feel excluded by this, making allocated groups better. I have not come up with any ideal solution here but maybe providing options for both is the answer (suggestions welcome!).

Eating based mental health disorders which most often affect adolescents and young women, although they can affect anyone, are increasingly prevalent. There are a range of disorders and accompanying symptoms and sometimes occur with other MH conditions such as anxiety and depression.  As with many other MH disorders, they are often under-reported. On field courses, we often require students to have long, sometimes physically demanding days, requiring good nutrition and calorie intake.  Providing information on arrangements for food can therefore be critical. This should involve timings, types of food available and opportunities for self-provision.  Some students may not be able to eat in front of others and therefore providing options for self-catering may be advisable.

Fieldwork often comprises some component of assessment, whether that is assessing competence in the field, notes taken or on-course presentations or worksheets.  Many of us have traditionally used the evenings to do this.  However, this provides a significant additional stress and can disadvantage students with existing MH (and physical health) conditions due to the challenges faced in completing the day’s activities.  Students with MH conditions may have trouble concentrating for long periods of time, need additional time for coping strategies, or suffer from tiredness and exhaustion.  Therefore, requiring students to complete high value assessment tasks on the field course may be inadvisable. It is worth considering whether assessment needs to be undertaken during the fieldcourse itself, or whether this could be completed afterwards.

As staff we are also subject to a lot of the same issues that students face and we need to recognise the need to take care of our own mental health and wellbeing on the trip. It is advisable to have more than one member of staff responsible for the trip so that no single person has the pressure through the whole visit. We may also be taking postgraduate students as teaching assistants and they are often the first port of call when students have concerns.  A clear line of communication should be established and responsibilities defined before the trip commences.

I have tried to highlight some of the main issues that I am currently considering when designing fieldwork in relation to mental health. I am sure that there are many other aspects that I have missed and I have not dealt with independent fieldwork here.  There is generally a need for much clearer guidance and training in this area, working with mental health professionals to provide expertise. I hope that these pieces provide a starting point for developing more inclusive and safe field courses for staff and students alike.

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

If you are struggling with any of the issues mentioned in this blog, please reach out to the Samaritans on 116 123 or Beat on 0808 801 0677.

One thought on “Supporting mental health in the field

  1. I picked up right way your comment on “Eating based mental health disorders” in the field setting. It is very true and I had experience working with overseas students in geology field camp. A student from Thailand attending our summer geology field camp exhibited fatigue and tiredness right after couple of days of work. Privately I inquired about this and he mentioned about food he was eating at the camp. Being in Wyoming (USA), a remote location miles away from the urban setting, traditional food items such as bread, meat, potato, salad and desserts were part of the daily serving – apparently nutritional and high calorie diet. Rice was not part of the regular menu, served only few times, though very little amount. Our Thai students was missing rice (it is very usual in Thailand to eat rice regularly, even for breakfast). So, the health and fatigue issue became clear, as he was missing rice dearly. Rice cooker was procured for him and from then he was able to cook rice and eat for breakfast and dinner as well. He looked energetic, performed quite well in the field and very successfully completed our 7 weeks-long summer geology program. Often we tend not to pay attention or accommodate food-related issues and create mental stress for attending students, may be few. Cultural awareness, respect for traditional practices, deeper understanding of individual needs are certainly warranted from our side to ensure everyone is happy, healthy and in harmony to achieve maximum effectiveness in conducting field investigation in a place often deemed as “out of comfort zone.” Many thanks for shedding light and strengthening the necessity to reassess field-related protocols, guidelines and operational mechanisms.

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