What is guiding you when you try to help people?

This one goes out to psychologists and other mental health professionals who are actively trying to improve the lives of others.

When you think about the people you help, is there an overarching model that you are following?

I was trained, both clinically and as a researcher, to base my practice around robust (i.e. evidence-based) models – representations of how people operate (or are purported to operate).  

Yet, I’ve been a little remiss in this regard in my role at the university. Not so much that I’ve been operating from a place of no underlying model or a controversial one, but I haven’t clearly articulated what it is I am hoping to achieve and how.

I’m fixing that now and spending some time articulating the overarching model from which I now work. I’ve included it as the diagram below.  

It isn’t anything special. It is really an amalgam of different kinds of behaviour change models with a strong focus on the COM-B work by Michie and colleagues (which itself has been derived from synthesising various behaviour change models). It is also highly simplified when you consider the many factors not included that contribute to the process described.

But being (more) specific about the underlying model from which I am operating can assist me in being more precise about the assistance I provide students. 

Fundamentally my models says this: I need to provide activities (e.g. workshops, seminars, programs, digital resources) which set the scene for positive behaviour change, which gives rise to mentally healthy and good study habits, which in turn will yield (hopefully) the mental health and academic success that students desire. 

There are a number of assumptions/steps in this model that I hold to be ‘true’ based on my understanding of the clinical literature in mental health.

First, I am assuming that students want good mental health and good academic outcomes. I’ve written about how I think about mental health and generally consider it a fairly safe assumption in terms of what people seek. I also assume that students want to do well at their studies; again, hopefully not a controversial assumption.

Second, I am assuming that one’s habits and routines contribute to building mental health and academic success. To be clear, I am not suggesting they are the only contributors. There are many factors (e.g. genetics, culture, past history) that play a role here. I am focused merely on those I believe I can modify and I believe an individual seeking better mental health and academic success can modify. .

Third, habits are built out of behaviour change. This might be observable behaviour change (e.g. starting an exercise program) or internal behaviour change (e.g. shifting one’s beliefs). Regardless, habits form because people engage in and then repeat beneficial behaviours.

Finally, I am assuming that there are things I can do (as a psychologist) to set the scene for positive behaviour change in others. So, what does setting the scene for positive behaviour change look like?

It starts with teaching knowledge and skills – ensuring students know what they can do to improve their mental health or study outcomes and be able to do those things. In my work, this takes the form of written resources (e.g. blog), seminars, workshops and programs. In many respects this is the easy part.  

But more importantly it then involves thinking about how to motivate students to actually follow through with those things. This can mean addressing many different things: their belief in their ability to improve themselves, linking changes to their values and who they want to be, showing that the suggested changes are right, good or useful, and demonstrating that the suggestions are better than other options. In the model, this is represented by those items in the large green box.

It is those motivational components that are probably the most important. For example, I can tell a student about meditation, show them how to go about it, but meditation will only yield its potential benefits if I motivate the student to follow through with developing a consistent meditation practice. And motivation can be a slippery sucker, as it can be driven by both conscious and sub-conscious drivers. I might start the day with a strong intent to not eat chocolate, but later in the day, mood and fatigue lead to a break in that motivation.

Having a model like this highlights where the gaps are in my existing practice. For example, I have done a pretty job of documenting what kinds of things students can do to improve their mental health and academic outcomes (i.e. sharing knowledge), but I haven’t focused as much on motivating them to experimenting and build these things into their life. 

I think that sounds like a great next step for me in my work 🙂

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