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Forget mental health, let's discuss emotional fitness

Opinion

Published by:

29 November 2019

Author: Nick Bennett

Image: Rebranding Mental Health for Refinery29. Photography by Flora Maclean

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Nick Bennett, CEO of Fika app, asks whether the student mental health crisis is actually an issue of education and skills relating to emotional wellbeing

Student mental health is in crisis, or so recent reports would suggest. This year, the UK’s largest student mental health poll revealed ‘alarmingly high’ levels of psychological distress and illness in universities. Meanwhile, new statistics show the proportion of UK students declaring mental health conditions has doubled in five years.

Though troubling, these statistics come as little surprise. Today, merely setting foot on a British university campus is likely to result in a conversation about either student or staff mental health. However serious and deserving of attention the student ‘mental health’ crisis may be, examine the problem more closely and the label seems inaccurate.

Contrary to popular belief, there has not been an explosion in the proportion of the population suffering from clinical mental illness. Students and staff are stressed, anxious and mildly depressed but rates of clinical illnesses like eating disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression remain flat, in line with population growth.

Certainly, going to university has always presented challenges for young people’s emotional stability. Not only does it coincide with their most formative years, as they strive to find their feet beyond school and family life, they also meet some of the most academically challenging experiences of their educational career, and often experience their first serious romantic relationships. Add to this the pressures of social media, the potential to self-isolate due to work pressures, and the rising cost of student debt, and it’s little wonder so many students struggle to maintain emotional balance.

But what if, as a society, we’re trying to treat the wrong problem? What if the student mental health crisis is not in fact a crisis of ‘mental illness’, but a cultural crisis, born out of a lack of education, language and awareness surrounding our 'emotional fitness'?

Topshop and Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) collection, campaign by Havas London
'We want to demonstrate the impact of regular emotional exercise on attainment and employment rates, and long-term career success'

We launched Fika – an evidence-based emotional fitness app designed by scientists, technologists and psychologists – to address this cultural gap. Put simply, we define emotional fitness as an individual’s ability to thrive academically and socially, to handle pressure, to boost their attainment, feel connected to others, and to self-regulate emotionally.

I would argue this has little to do with clinical or medically-treatable mental illness. Even the Higher Education Policy Institute has commented on the importance of distinguishing correctly between wellbeing issues and mental health conditions. Instead, ‘emotional fitness’ puts both the power, and the responsibility, back in the hands of the individual. Like our physical fitness, our emotional fitness is something we ourselves are accountable for, and have the power to change.

And change it we can. Students using Fika have reported reduced anxiety and stress (81%), increased motivation (81%), increased confidence (79%), improved study (94%) and feeling more able to complete assignments (81%). We’ve created a self-sustainable learning-based service that provides a long-term solution to mainstream problems.

We are on a mission to make emotional fitness mainstream, integrating vital (yet regularly missing) emotional education into the higher education curriculum, reversing the student wellbeing crisis, and arming students with essential, future-facing skills. In the coming years, we plan to demonstrate the impact of regular emotional exercise, not just for students but beyond education, on attainment and employment rates, long-term career success, and greater social inclusion.

Long-term, we intend to use this evidence base to influence global behaviours, attitudes and language surrounding mental health. Does mental health need a positive rebrand? Yes it does. And with emotional fitness we believe we have found the answer.

Nick Bennett is CEO and co-founder of Fika, an app that's on a mission to make emotional fitness mainstream through daily five-minute emotional workouts.

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