“Students get the idea of emotional fitness”

Debbie McVitty sits down with Fika co-founder Nick Bennett to explore where emotional fitness fits in for universities and students.

Can an app generate a paradigm shift in higher education? Fika co-founders Nick Bennett and Gareth Fryer are on a mission to create the product that changes thinking on mental health.

The concept is that as a culture we place too much emphasis on the “illness” end of the mental health spectrum and not enough on the “fitness” end. Founded on a model informed by positive psychology, and drawing on the experiences of elite athletes in building mental resilience for peak performance, the Fika app encourages students – and anyone else who is interested – to undertake short daily exercises to improve their emotional fitness.

When I sat down with Nick, I was interested in how the concept of emotional fitness itself is landing in universities, where I’ve generally found the dominant professional culture to be more cerebral and critical than cuddly. My own first response to Fika was certainly sceptical. I’d read critiques of positive psychology and wanted to understand the evidence base informing the model.

Creating a category

Nick traces the roots of Fika to a turning point in his own life – the death by suicide of his best friend, Ben. “It was a reset moment for me. I’d been a heavy drinker, and recognised that on reflection, and in the mixture of guilt and anger and everything, I was a typical ‘keep everything to yourself’ person, thinking that strength meant holding it all in.”

A digital and communications agency executive, Nick applied his professional skills to his grieving process: “I spent a long time thinking what I could have done for Ben, what I should have done for myself. It dawned on me that there was a fundamental missing element in our culture – this is what Gareth and I have spent time trying to understand. We celebrate physical fitness and health but don’t do the same for mental health.”

A simple internet search illustrates Nick’s point. Search for “physical health” and you get images of smiling and sculpted gym-goers and runners. Whereas a search for “mental health” produces, in Nick’s words, “silhouettes and skulls.” The implied message is that mental health is negative, not aspirational.

“We have a culture that cries out for mental health,” argues Nick. “Young people are aspiring to be emotionally fit. We can teach them that confidence is the new six pack. It’s a much more desirable and meaningful outcome than seeking physical attractiveness.”

An intensive period of product development followed, and Nick picks up on the question of the underlying evidence base. The Fika app is based on a psychological model derived from research literature in psychology, education and design, and informed by an academic advisory board. The model breaks down emotional fitness into seven areas: motivation, purpose, stress, confidence, connection, positivity and focus, all of which are linked, in theory, to overall life satisfaction, wellbeing and success.

The aim is to improve students’ personal agency, and avoid “self-efficacy spirals” in which, for example, a period of low motivation leads to non-submission of work, which creates stress and panic, which leads to avoidance of issues, which then multiply until they are beyond the student’s powers to bring back under control.

I voice my doubts about positive psychology, which I’m concerned tends to blame people for their own feelings of unhappiness. Nick counters that mainstream positive psychology doesn’t advocate performative happiness, nor does it insist that we look on the bright side of every situation, even where the evidence doesn’t warrant it. “There’s a difference between having a perpetual silly grin and using positivity as a tool to help you to take action in a situation. Positivity is not about always being happy, but it is about moving forward.”

If the long term goal is to change the way we think about mental health as society then Nick believes HE is a good place to start. “HE partners have a big part to play in how wider culture is shaped. Influencing this generation of students means shaping future culture, new businesses, expectations of society and being in society.”

There’s an app for that

We turn to a discussion of the technology involved, and Fika’s choice to address the problem of building emotional fitness through app-based exercises. The app is iteratively refined and updated in response to students’ engagement and feedback. The exercises were co-developed with students and include categories on self-care, relationships, self-efficacy and making the most of university. Exercises are supplemented with personal stories from role models, particularly elite athletes.

It’s not yet clear whether students interacting with an app can promote the sort of sustainable change Fika hopes to see in individual motivation, or how that might translate into improvements to performance. Fika is currently working with partner universities to design and implement trials comparing data and feedback from Fika users to control groups, with the aim of securing peer reviewed publication.

Students “get the idea of emotional fitness,” says Nick. “They like the idea it’s something they take on themselves and have responsibility for.” That seems reasonable in the context of students building their ability to cope with the daily stresses and challenges of university life. But could there be a risk of harm for students struggling with – perhaps undiagnosed – serious mental health issues?

Nick tells me the risk of harm is something the Fika team has considered in consultation with the academic literature and judged to be highly unlikely. Subsequent trials with partner universities, including students with specific conditions, have indicated a similar conclusion. To further mitigate any potential risk, a button on the app interface refers students to general and university-specific sources of support and help.

Attention spanner

Nick accepts that a major challenge for any intervention targeted at students in general is securing long term engagement, and Fika is no exception. “If this is going to be self-sustainable it’s got to be in the students’ pockets and it’s got to be on something they’re used to having their faces glued to all day long” he says. “If you think of the processing power students carry in their pockets, why would you rely on outdated distribution technology?”

But there’s no doubt that any app targeted at students is competing for attention with numerous others. Using athletes’ stories is a way of capturing that attention: “Getting to students is either through the system or by having some interesting culture in there and bringing popular culture into education. There’s a way of telling the story through someone you respect.”

Longer term, the plan is to integrate more closely with university curricula through developing exercises for personal tutoring, peer mentoring or group work. Focused work on particular issues and student groups – including BAME, international and commuter students, and student employability, is also on the cards.

It’s clear that Fika shouldn’t be seen as – nor is it intended to be – a substitute for providing mental health services for the students that need specialist support. But the idea of emotional fitness does challenge how we might begin to account for and understand how students’ emotions shape their interactions with their universities. Nick is fired up by working with universities, and the potential for partnering on research: “People in HE are incredible, the sense of the duty of care for maturing generations of young people is fantastic. There’s a sense of collaboration, a sense of ‘we all need to do this together’ that’s alien to the commercial and corporate landscape.”

This article is published as part of a series on mental health and wellbeing in association with Fika

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