Why self-compassion is the key to improving mental health for young people

Yasuhiro Kotera
Monday, June 3, 2019

About a quarter of UK university students have some type of mental health problem, amounting to half a million young people.

Although there are many mature students, a large portion of the student population is in their late teens and early 20s and therefore undergoing transitions - not least living on their own away from family - and that can be mentally challenging.

University is where young people prepare for their professional career. Using the knowledge and skills acquired in their studies, their identities will change and evolve from students to professionals. Accordingly, expectations of them change as they become responsible adults.

The effect of these changes on mental health are not modest. So taking care of their mental health during studies is very important, especially given that 75 per cent of lifelong mental health problems are established by the age of 24.

These findings led our team of Counselling academics at the University of Derby Online Learning to research the mental health of UK university students, which showed that the levels of depression, anxiety and stress (most common symptoms in students) were relatively high. We also explored their shame about mental health problems, because stigma about mental health problems in this population is high. Many students think asking for help with mental health problems is a sign of weakness or inadequacy.

Unsurprisingly, in our samples, their mental health shame was associated with mental health problems: students who felt ashamed to have such problems tended to suffer from poor mental health. This may imply a negative spiral of poor mental health: some students may suffer from poor mental health but feel unable to ask for help due to shame, which further exacerbates the problem.

We also evaluated positive psychological constructs that might be related to good mental health, including resilience, academic motivation, engagement and self-compassion.

Consistently across different disciplines - including healthcare and business - self-compassion was most strongly related to good mental health. Self-compassion is about understanding and kindness towards one's shortcomings or feelings of inadequacy.

Self-compassion consists of self-kindness (loving towards oneself), common humanity (recognising that there are other people who have the same problems as you do) and mindfulness (being present here and now, instead of depressed with the past or worried about the future).

It is not surprising that students who have high self-compassion tend to have good mental health. We also found a negative relationship between mental health shame and self-compassion. These findings may suggest that self-compassion can address two issues: reducing mental health problems; and shame about them.

Shame is a strong emotion, and hinders people's healthy behaviours. Today, because of increasing awareness of mental health in the country, many universities and institutions have started implementing "mental health" training but the effects remain uncertain. Part of reason for this may be that because students feel shameful about mental health, training entitled "mental health" may put them off.

Also, linguistically, the words "mental health" are often used in the context of negative mental health. "Mental health" training may trigger their shame, resulting in poor outcomes. Instead, if we invite students to take part in training that describes something positive to be increased, they may be more engaged with the training.

Targeting self-compassion may be one alternative approach for good student mental health (although the word "self-compassion" may need to be changed a bit for some groups of students).

We are currently examining the impact of self-compassion training on student mental health, comparing it with more conventional mental health training, and the results so far have been promising. "Self-compassion training" improved their mental health and reduced their shame more than "mental health training".

There are many ways to practice self-compassion. Compassion imagery is one way. Think of someone who is compassionate for you, and imagine what they would say about difficulties and challenges you are facing. Compassion letter-writing may be another way, where you would write how that compassionate person would write to you.

Also, breathing is important. Often, students like the breathing exercises. By breathing deeply and slowly, you can activate your "soothing" mind, which deals with compassion (as opposed to the "threat" and "drive" minds). Some of you may be already familiar with meditation. More recently, we have included reframing in our session, helping students to nurture resilience, by teaching how one negative perceived personal quality can be reframed positively. Students really liked this exercise.

The mental health of all young people needs to be addressed. Educators can incorporate education and training of self-compassion so that students can learn how to protect their mental health during and after their studies.