Disability and Learning Support Service

Case study: supporting a student with a mental health problem

Case studying showing the range of support that can be provided for students with mental health problems

Joe had been diagnosed with depression and social anxiety before starting University. Prior to accessing the Disability and Learning Support Service  and being referred to a  Mental Health Study Specialist he received no support other than prescribed anti-depressant medication. In second year he found that he was not coping and took an Authorised Interruption of Studies. Joe missed his summer exams but returned for re-sits. It was during this return period that he first sought assistance from SDS.  As a result of this approach Joe was provided with the support of a Study Skills Specialist (Mental Health), who met with him on a weekly basis, to discuss strategies and techniques to address the impact of his depression and anxiety on his studies.

Joe was successful in his re-sits and progressed into the third year of his course, continuing to meet regularly with his Mental Health Study Specialist.  During these sessions Joe spoke about how he struggled to complete work and felt unable to contribute to seminars, tutorials and especially group activities.  This made him feel stupid, out of his depth and alienated from his peers. He was not totally isolated as he had made friends and would socialise with them, however, he felt his enjoyment was always spoiled because his anxiety would make him feel guilty that he was not working.  When Joe did work he felt dissatisfied with what he was doing and would dwell on this, which would further undermine his ability to concentrate. This created a cycle of low-motivation for Joe and ultimately led him to believe that he couldn’t actually work effectively at all. Underpinning all of this was his big fear around participating in group activities and projects – a key requirement of the course. When considering this aspect of his studies, Joe expected that he would show himself as incompetent to his classmates and be humiliated.

In response to these issues the Study Specialist took an initial focus on helping Joe to get his sense of purpose back by asking basic questions, such as, ‘why this subject?’, ‘what interests you about it?’ and ‘what do you find tedious about it?’, ‘why is it important to get a degree?’. This was linked to considering with Joe the fact that inertia is a symptom of depression and that it makes people feel unmotivated. The way to counter this was to start developing good study habits built around the principle of establishing a cycle of REVIEW – PLAN – PREPARE. Reviewing his work each day helped Joe to see that he was achieving things. Planning helped him to know what he was doing next and where he was doing it. Preparation helped him to understand that he could best manage his anxiety about tutorials, seminars and group projects by clarifying learning objectives and working to the main themes and key readings for his subject.  In addition, and to help with his affected concentration the Mentor introduced Joe to the Pomodoro Technique. This approach helped to alleviate the effects of anti-depressants on his short-term memory, and for Joe the emphasis was on the importance of frequent breaks as well as ensuring that tasks were broken down into smaller, manageable chunks.  Working with the Study Specialist also helped Joe to consider how he could enhance his approach to group work by using ‘ice-breakers’ such as, “ I notice that you did X, that was really good, can you tell me about it?”

By the end of third year Joe had re-established himself on his course and successfully progressed into fourth year.  By the time Joe commenced his final year of study, he felt well enough to be able to stop his regular Study Specialist sessions.  They had done what he needed them to do.