Managing Culture Shock as an International Student

There’s a real buzz to moving abroad as an international student, but when homesickness strikes, Birkbeck’s Counselling Service are here to help.

On Thursday 17 October, Birkbeck’s new international and exchange students attended an in-depth workshop on the difficulties and trials of culture shock. Mrs Aura Rico of the student counselling team led the workshop, in which new students explored what it means to be away from home, surrounded by unfamiliar faces and in the centre of a bustling London. We have to admit, it’s not always the most familiar environment.

Throughout this workshop, students were given a thorough insight into what culture shock can first feel like. After welcoming her audience with a quick trivia quiz, Mrs Rico explored perceived stereotypes of Britain– noting that not all are true! Students then had the opportunity to share their first impressions of life at Birkbeck.

From the initial buzz of living abroad, to feelings of being homesick, culture shock can be felt in a number of phases. Mrs Rico explored the many ways in which culture shock can help us cherish our new experiences, and help us develop into open-minded and independent individuals. Whilst it is very natural to feel a strong culture shock, Birkbeck continues to explore the ways in which students can embrace new experiences in London without a fear of forgetting the familiar.

If you’re suffering from culture shock, or have any need to speak to someone at Birkbeck, please contact our student counselling team or Mrs Aura Rico at a.rico@bbk.ac.uk.

You are not alone!

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Building better workplace wellness: a practical guide

On World Mental Health Day 2019, Birkbeck and CIPR Greater London Group came together to discuss how to manage the ‘always-on’ culture in the workplace.

Work, Workaholic, Writer, Programmer, One, Laptop

In the 26th year of World Mental Health Day, CIPR’s Steve Shepperson-Smith acknowledged that organisations are starting to take the issue more seriously – and rightly so, when mental health is the number one concern raised by PR practitioners, above finding or keeping work. More concerning still, is the fact that nearly a quarter of those in the industry who did raise mental health concerns with their managers reported that nothing had happened as a result. Clearly, then, there is more to be done.

In an evening of discussion between experts in workplace mental health and PR, we looked for practical solutions to combatting the ‘always-on’ culture in the workplace.

A key refrain of the evening was that actions speak louder than words – it is, of course, fantastic that organisations are acknowledging the importance of mental health, but this must translate into concrete steps to support their workers.

A case study of good mental health practice

Darryl Sparey, Business Development Director at Hotwire UK’s honest account of his company’s approach to mental health showed ways that well-meaning words can become more through a company-wide approach.

What will people think of me? is something that people ask themselves too often before they’re honest about their mental health in the workplace”, he said. Hotwire UK have developed a thoughtful working policy, where “We see work as a thing you do, not a place you go. We treat our staff as adults and let them do what works for them – if that means taking a break in the middle of the day for a run and returning to work later, then that’s what you do.”

Staff can also access a number of benefits that focus on mental health: the employee assistance programme includes a free helpline providing confidential support, both directly related to mental health and on issues that cause stress, such as legal and financial concerns.

From the top down, Hotwire UK have also worked to create a culture of openness, with everyone from the CEO to junior colleagues talking openly about their mental health day-to-day. Through actions as well as words, then, the organisation have shown their commitment to creating an environment of openness, where everyone can bring their whole self to work.

Mental health support at Birkbeck

The impact of leadership on workplace wellness was picked up by Charlotte Williams, head of Birkbeck’s counselling service. She shared the work of Birkbeck’s mental health consultancy, who are considering how leadership impacts workplace wellbeing, as well as how leaders can look after their mental health.

Williams stressed that mental health, like physical health, is a continuum, and when one in six British workers are affected by a mental health problem every year, it’s something that needs to be taken seriously. As the theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day is suicide, she spoke of the need for people to talk about their problems – “There’s a misconception that talking to a suicidal person might prompt them to take drastic action, but in fact talking about mental health almost always diffuses the issue,” she said.

While self-care is important on the side of the individual, Charlotte also had some practical advice for employers: “Value health and wellbeing as core assets in the workplace; train compassionate line managers so they are equipped to support their employees; address discrimination so that the wellbeing policy doesn’t just sit on the shelf; and ensure the CEO sets the tone for the organisation by talking about mental health.”

The research behind the ‘always-on’ culture

Almuth McDowall, Professor of Organizational Psychology at Birkbeck, shared how the changing world of work is fuelling the ‘always-on’ culture. She addressed the ‘double-bind’ that technology brings, providing at once greater opportunities for flexible working and a way of being forced to continue working outside designated hours.

“There is a culture of longer working hours developing, where it’s almost a badge of honour to have been in the office the longest,” she explained, “but in actual fact, once we work for longer than 50 hours a week, our productivity and performance nosedives, and the worst thing is that we don’t realise it.”

A few attempts have been made across Europe to address this new working culture. A law has been created in France where employees have the right to disconnect from their devices outside working hours. Meanwhile, in Germany, some companies are opting for systems where emails are held on the server and not sent to recipients during the evening or overnight.

Professor McDowall is sceptical of these one size fits all approaches, calling instead for organisations to work with employees to develop strategies for their unique setting and for everyone to build up their e-resilience by pursuing purposeful engagement with technology and e-communications, so that it is healthy and sustainable.

How to go about doing that? Professor McDowall advises beginning with the questions below, then starting a conversation in the workplace about mental health.

Some Questions:

  • Do you check your phone on the toilet?
  • Do you regularly take sneaky peeks at your laptop/tablet/phone while doing other tasks?
  • Do you multi-task on other gadgets while watching TV/films on your laptop?
  • Are you more likely to be on your gadgets at night than read a book?
  • Do you tell your kids off for always being on the phone, but don’t hear it when they speak to you because you’re checking emails?
  • Do others comment on your message checking behaviours?
  • Are you more likely to check your messages first thing in the morning than cuddle your partner or do other things?
  • Do you talk to others about, and if necessary negotiate, your technology and gadget use?
  • Is your bedroom a gadget-free zone?
  • Do you consciously think about how you use technology?
  • Do you set an example to your staff/co-workers about when and how to use technology for communications?
  • Have you communicated clear expectations about e-comms at work?
  • Would you rather speak to people than write an email?
  • Do you set yourself actual limits/boundaries for how and when to use technology?

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Well-being for the needs of forced migrants

Birkbeck counsellors, Jo Myddleton and Aura Rico and counselling students Michael Darko and Ishiabah Kasonga write about the collaborative approach they took when tailoring a well-being workshop for the needs of forced migrants, who were starting their academic journey at the College, through the Compass Project.   

The Compass Project has welcomed its second cohort of students to study a university level qualification at Birkbeck, providing 17 fully funded places for those who have sought sanctuary in the UK. The project is unique within the sector, due to its focus on supporting mature forced migrants who may have missed out on accessing education and have faced difficulties in accessing educational opportunities owing to strict entry requirements and a lack of documentation to demonstrate academic ability.

This year, to support students in the start of their journey, the Access and Engagement department organised a two-day orientation, offering a space for students to get to know one another as well as raise awareness of the range of support available at Birkbeck and an introduction to the colleagues behind this.

Starting university can be an overwhelming experience for any student and with that in mind, running a session on mental health and well-being was a key topic to explore as part of the orientation. It was also important that we recognised that those from a forced migrant background are likely to present challenges that differ from the average student population. To ensure that the workshop on mental health was meaningful and in line with the needs of the students, the Counselling Service at Birkbeck partnered with two current students studying Counselling and Counselling Skills, and who had started their journey at Birkbeck through the Compass Project in 2017 – to ensure that the experiences and feelings of forced migrants were understood and addressed during the workshop.

On their experience of working collaboratively with Birkbeck students, Aura Rico and Jo Myddleton from the Counselling Service, said:

“When the Counselling Service was invited by the Compass Project to deliver a workshop on Culture Shock and Adjusting to University Life, we very much welcomed the opportunity to meet the new students and support them at the start of their journey through their courses at Birkbeck.

“We have been delivering these workshops for some time so the material was pretty much ready and we just needed to practise a bit and manage our public-speaking nerves. A few weeks before the event, however, Naureen got in touch: two of the current Compass Project students who are studying Counselling and Counselling Skills were keen to be involved in designing and delivering the workshop, to ensure that it particularly took into account the needs of those who have sought asylum.

“Looking back on it, we remember receiving this request with certain ambivalence: We know what we are doing and the workshop is ready to go, we thought. However, we also recognised that Michael and Kasonga would be particularly well-placed to add valuable insight for the benefit of the new intake of Compass Project students.  We got on immediately with Michael and Kasonga: they were full of ideas and very perceptive about the specific challenges that Compass Project Students face. We found the meeting enlightening.

“As a result we re-designed our workshop, opening spaces for discussion and hoping to challenge stereotypes. Michael and Kasonga both spoke eloquently and honestly to the group of their own experiences as students within the Compass Project, which modelled openness to the current intake.  This was then taken up in the group discussions, where experiences, feelings, assumptions and attitudes were shared and explored. It was a very enjoyable experience and thanks to this collaboration we feel we have a better understanding of the needs of our students and are better equipped to support them, and hope that should they need to, they will feel able to engage with the many different sources of support available at Birkbeck.”

Michael also talks about both his and Kasonga’s experience of working closely with the counselling team, both on a personal level and in bettering the support available to those who present with complex and different needs:

“I was in high spirits and full of excitement from passing my first year on the counselling course. Having navigated many ups and downs through my first year back at university. I was pleased to see an email from Naureen asking if any of us would like to be part of this workshop.

“I thought this was an excellent idea, so I jumped on board straight away. The chance of working alongside the counselling team at Birkbeck was very appealing but most importantly I felt that both the Counselling Service at Birkbeck and the College was genuinely interested in the value students could bring.

“I am a strong advocate for bolstering the voices of those who have gained insight and expertise through their experiences, so the decision to include students in this process showed me the level of commitment Birkbeck has to students’ well-being.

“I remember having a meeting with Kasonga and thinking to ourselves, ‘why do they want us to be involved?’ I mean the Counselling Service are the experts in this field and surely, they must have all the answers so why do they need us?

“Our first meeting with Aura proved to us just how much the Counselling Service here at Birkbeck is committed to student well-being. It became very clear that this was not about how good the Counselling Service is, rather, it was a genuine effort to better understand the needs of students and to become better equipped to support them.

“This was all about the students; we both felt valued, which gave us the confidence to open up and talk about our experiences as first-year students on the Compass Project, the challenges we faced and how we overcame those challenges.

“The Counselling Service team were very welcoming of our ideas and insight; the way both Aura and Jo designed the workshop was magnificent in the way that Kasonga and I could bring in our own experience as students within the compass project. Kasonga and I found it very easy and a real privilege to work with Aura and Jo.

“The workshop was structured brilliantly, the group discussions in which experiences, feelings, assumptions and attitudes were shared and explored worked well and I felt that everyone was engaged. The whole experience made me feel that I was in the best learning institution I could ever be and part of something.

“Thanks to this collaboration I feel there is a better understanding of the complex needs of the Compass Project students and the challenges that they face. I am confident that counselling and other available services here at Birkbeck are better equipped to support these students, and I hope that should they need to students will feel able to engage with the many different sources of support available at Birkbeck.

Special thanks to all those working hard behind the scenes to make sure that workshops and programmes such as these come to fruition, from Naureen and team to Aura and Jo, from the Counselling Service to all the donors of the Compass Project.”

The Counselling Services at Birkbeck is committed to improving the wellbeing and mental health of all Birkbeck students. They offer free, confidential, non-judgemental counselling to students – to support with their engagement and experience as a student at Birkbeck.

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Arts Week 2017: Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways: Selected Artists from the Adamson Collection

Martin Birch, untitled drawing (Mr A moves in mysterious ways). Credit: Adamson Collection / Wellcome Trust.

Martin Birch, untitled drawing (Mr A moves in mysterious ways). Credit: Adamson Collection / Wellcome Trust.

The Adamson Collection is, in every sense, a remarkable archive, encompassing a vast and varied body of work that spans both five decades of asylum history and myriad approaches to artistic practice.

Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways: Selected Artists from the Adamson Collection, curated by Dr Heather Tilley and Dr Fiona Johnstone, features painting, drawing and sculpture selected from some 6000 art objects, all produced under the guidance of pioneering art therapist Edward Adamson (1911-1996) by residents at Netherne Hospital in Surrey, a long-stay mental asylum, between 1946 and 1981. As part of a launch event a panel discussion was held in Birkbeck Cinema, where therapists, curators and artists alike shared their insights into Adamson’s life and legacy.

David O’Flynn from the Adamson Collection Trust and Val Huet from the British Association of Art Therapists spoke respectively about the development of Adamson’s work and ethos; the process of securing and displaying the collection – a task fraught with challenges, curatorial and conceptual – and about Adamson’s continued relevance to art therapy today.

Adamson defined himself not as a therapist, but as an artist; despite being instrumental in the foundation of the British Association of Art Therapists, he did not align himself with any one theoretical position. Adamson was an independent thinker who maintained his identity as an outsider as an act of affinity for those whose work he inspired and preserved.

Initially engaged at Netherne as a researcher into the relationship between mental illness and creativity, Adamson’s job was to encourage patients to produce work for clinical analysis. However, after the study ended in 1951, he established a studio where residents at Netherne were allowed to paint freely. He came to believe that making art was therapy enough; that creative expression could provide people with a bridge back to themselves. Working in this way Adamson amassed a staggering amount of material, writing the artist’s name and date of completion on the back of each piece, and so preserving not only the art object but the personal narratives of individuals otherwise anonymised by institutionalisation.

In exhibiting the work he collected, Adamson believed he could reengage the artists with a society that excluded them, and challenge pre-conceived ideas about the capacity of the mentally ill to contribute meaningfully to culture. As Val Huet emphasised in her talk, Adamson’s lasting impact upon contemporary art therapy was in situating “art at the heart” of therapy; extending artistic agency beyond the borders of allotted therapy time. As continued cutbacks to mental health budgets put pressure upon this practice-based approach, a reassessment of Adamson’s pioneering work becomes more topical, timely and, potentially, radical.

Beth Elliott, a trustee of Bethlem Gallery, and their artist-in-residence Matthew, spoke about the development of artistic practice inside the institution, and the unique pressures, restrictions, and surprising affordances of the clinical environment. Matthew’s description of his own process, together with the slides of his vibrant and luminous artwork, was a clear argument for the persistence of practice at the centre of therapy, demonstrating how art within the asylum can be an imaginative escape, a tool for navigation, and a strategy for resistance.

Invigorated by the talks, people headed towards the Peltz Gallery where the work of eight artists is on display, including pieces by Martin Birch from whose arch drawing of Adamson the exhibition takes its title, and Gwyneth Rowlands, whose eerie and arresting painted flints were my personal highlight of the exhibition.

It is worth noting that this is the first time the artists have been named in an exhibition; their work attributed to an individual with a unique aesthetic outlook and approach, not shown as an undifferentiated mass of “asylum art”.  From Mary Bishop’s bold blocks of Constructivist colour to Rolanda Polonsky’s intricate, spooling pencil drawings, the work defends its right to be considered first and foremost as art. This exhibition asks us to consider the meaning of the phrase “outsider artist” and where in that description the emphasis should be placed.

Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways interweaves a diverse array of narratives – personal and medical. It is an insight into changing psychiatric practice, a celebration of Adamson’s work, and also a testament to eight unique artistic visions and histories.

Fran Lock is a poet and practice-based PhD student in her first year at Birkbeck

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