How Fika is supporting universities with mental fitness during Covid-19

Fika is making its Covid-19 mental fitness package freely available to universities for the rest of the year. Co-founder Nick Bennett explains the science behind the package.

COVID-19 lockdown “shows you who you are – your mental fortitude – what you’re made of and what’s inside” says Paul, a student at Middlesex University and one of Fika’s student role models. “I think being by myself has really helped me see a lot about my character that I didn’t know was there – or maybe I did know was there, but I didn’t realise.”

Life in lockdown is testing us all, whether it’s juggling childcare with professional commitments, or coping with the anxiety that comes from uncertainty about the future. For students, the overnight disappearance of existing structures and pastimes, and loss of close connection from friends and family, can be brutal.

Though there are signs some aspects of the lockdown may relax in the summer, the likelihood of face-to-face tutoring and study being resumed this term or even in the new academic year, is low. Staff and students will need to adapt to unprecedented emotional challenges, setting new boundaries and drawing on remote psychological support to stay confident, motivated and to stay the course in their work and studies.

Digitising psychology and reflection through storytelling

At Fika, we halted business as usual at the first signs of the Covid-19 crisis, refocusing our efforts to develop new, positive psychology led exercises specific to the situation students and staff are now finding themselves in. These packs focus on normalising feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and demotivation, and providing a platform for our student and staff communities to share the coping techniques they’ve developed to manage in isolation.

Shot on mobile from bedrooms and living rooms across the UK via remote interviews with Fika’s head of psychology, the programmes integrate mental health literacy and psychology tips with vivid stories of how students are drawing on their inner resources to maintain their mental fitness.

For example, Aaron at the University of Bristol is working with a friend on goal-setting: “We both want to work on our degree, get some exercise, and spend time on our minds. So, we’ve built a daily schedule and I woke up this morning thinking – all right, let’s go.”

“Not knowing what will happen next is scary,” says Niamh, a student at the University of Westminster. “But keeping up with mindfulness meditation and my yoga practice has been really helpful to push away the negative thoughts. I’ve also done worry trees – laying out what’s a real worry and what’s an imaginary one – and going from there to solve the problem. This has been really helpful – as well as staying away from social media.”

“I’ve got a plan and every day I’ve put in self care and things I can do to look after myself,” says Poppy, who studies at Bath Spa University.

Meanwhile, Emily at the University of Exeter uses journaling as a way of processing her emotions. “Just being conscious of my feelings – my journal asks me to write down three good things that happened and one thing I can do tomorrow. It allows me to reflect and get everything off my mind, ready for the evening.”

Peer-led storytelling can be a powerful tool for learning and reflection, and with Covid-19 constraining our outward sense of control, we have more time to turn inward and consider our internal locus of control.

In addition, expert in-app videos from Fika’s head of psychology Fran Longstaff explain the science behind Fika’s seven skills of mental fitness – managing stress, sharpening focus, thinking positively, maintaining connections with others, being confident, staying motivated and finding meaning in life.

From understanding the differences between positive and negative stress, to being aware of how the amygdala’s flight, fright or freeze response bypasses the brain’s System 2 thinking, these expert videos – soon to be augmented with content from academics across the UK – help normalise our reactions to the past weeks’ events, unlocking our ability to cope.

Fran’s background is in sports psychology. Drawing on her experience building mental resilience in elite athletes, Fran’s advice, combined with our student, staff and expert videos, create a platform to build new community resilience across the higher education sector.

Building the evidence on mental fitness

The content in our Fika Covid-19 package brings to life the wider evidence base on mental fitness – an evidence base we’ve been investing in for the past two years as we’ve developed the Fika platform. Fika draws on sports and positive psychology, acceptance and commitment therapy, solution-focused therapy, and cognitive behavioural therapy to provide daily five-minute mental fitness workouts tailored to the situations and challenges students face as part of their normal university experience. It’s informed by an academic advisory board, and aligned with the 2019 NICE evidence standards for digital health technologies.

The University of Lincoln was one of our first partners, and we took the opportunity to assess the impact of an app-based intervention on the incoming cohort of first-year students. Working closely with academic Dr. Roger Bretherton in Lincoln’s School of Psychology, we designed a randomised control trial that examined the efficacy of the Fika app on key psychological predictors of retention, attainment and student experience.

The results are pre peer review, but are adding to our growing evidence base supporting positive shifts in wellbeing during a transition period. In total, 92 first-year students were assigned to either the Fika app or an active control group. The control group was asked to undertake a digital journaling intervention. Participants were asked to engage with their assigned activity three times a week for six weeks. Life satisfaction, positive and negative affect, and self-efficacy at baseline – pre-trial, three weeks (during) and six weeks later (post-trial) – were all assessed.

Students who used the Fika app had statistically significantly higher life satisfaction, improved positive affect and self-efficacy and lower negative affect compared to the control group after six weeks. Not only that, but the control group also exhibited a downward shift in wellbeing over the duration of the trial, suggesting how intense the emotional challenge this period of transition into university can be for the students involved.

These findings gave us confidence that we’re doing the right things, and we’re now in the process of submitting the results to an academic journal, so we can contribute to the research literature.

In light of our evidence base supporting positive change in periods of transition, Covid-19 and the enormous pressures brought to bear on university students and staff, we see it as our responsibility to do what we can to help the sector here and now.

So from now, and for the rest of the year, we’re making our Covid-19 support package available, free and without caveat to any university in the UK that wants it, as our way of extending our duty of care to all students and staff.

Though the circumstances have changed, our work to build our evidence base continues.

On top of our existing work with more than 20 university partners across the UK, we have recently begun collaborating with Dr Nicola Payne and Dr Camille Alexis-Garsee at Middlesex University. This research will assess the impact of Covid-19 on the wellbeing of staff and students in higher education – specifically examining predictors of mental and physical health and wellbeing. And we’ve also begun work with the UK Advising & Tutoring Association (UKAT) to gain further insight into how we can support university staff and personal tutors.

In the future we may look back on this pandemic as a key moment that prompted a reassessment of priorities and working practices. Learning to take care of our emotional health and mental fitness, and give it the time it deserves, could be one useful thing we gain from having been thrust into these otherwise grim circumstances.

This article is published in association with Fika. To find out more and access Fika’s Covid-19 psychological support package, contact hello@fika.community.

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