This article has been written by Heather and Jamie, who are social work students at the University of Strathclyde, on their experience of contributing to the Professional Development Award in Practice Learning (Practice Teaching Award) on the topic of relationships and student mental health and wellbeing on placement.
Back in January 2019, an e-mail was sent out to social work students at the University of Strathclyde offering the opportunity to take part in the training of new practice teachers through the ‘Students as Educators’ project. After an information session with Fiona Stansfield, Manager of Practice Learning, from Strathclyde University and Darren Chapman, Practice Learning Officer, from Learning Network West, we felt that it was a great opportunity to meet practice teachers, gain insight from their experiences, network and get the chance to be creative in delivering a project. From a range of topics to work with, we (Heather, second year student and Jamie, third year student) were interested in exploring the importance of roles and diversity in social work placements. To do this, we looked at the subject of mental health in social work students, the importance of awareness of life stressors that students may face and considered how to support practice teachers and students to get to know one another better when first meeting.
These choices were influenced by our own experiences. As a student who had already undertaken their first 80-day placement, Jamie was interested in looking at how practice teachers and students viewed their roles and what it was that they each wanted to gain from placement. While on placement, he found that the process of getting to know one another could be one-sided, with the practice teacher learning about the student, but the student lacking information on the practice teacher. He felt that it would also be important for the practice teacher to be aware of the fact that a placement is a continuous learning process for both involved, and that placement should be a safe place for everyone to learn and develop, whether as a future social worker or practice teacher, as continuous development and learning is an integral aspect of social work. When delivering our session to the practice teachers-in-training, we shared with them our ‘Bring and Buy’ activity (adapted from Kirwin MacLean Associates resource ‘Setting the Learning Agenda’, available on ScOPTbox at https://practicelearning.info/mod/data/view.php?d=4&rid=153). We felt this offered practice teachers and students the chance to get to know one another better before commencing the placement by exploring what they wanted to gain from the experience and what they felt they could bring.
As for mental health, this was a particular area of interest for Heather, as a second-year student who had undertaken a 10-day observational placement and awaiting her first practice placement in third year with mixed feelings – a blend of excitement and anxiety. It is already widely known that poor mental health is an issue faced by much of the population, with 1 in 4 of us in the UK experiencing a mental health problem each year (Mind, 2017). Heather was interested in learning more about the particular experiences of social work students embarking on placement and how this affected their mental health. To do this, we gathered the thoughts and experiences of our fellow students by sending out a survey to about 140 social work students at Strathclyde University, both postgraduate and undergraduate, regardless of whether they had undertaken a placement or not, we received 42 completed responses. This gave ourselves and other students the opportunity to share our experiences, feelings and thoughts with new practice teachers.
The results showed us that poor mental health was widely experienced - over 78% of respondents felt that they had experienced a mental health condition (whether diagnosed or undiagnosed). Students also shared both helpful and unhelpful experiences from their own placements, factors that affected their mental health during this time along with tips for new practice teachers (download leaflet).
This experience really highlighted to us the importance of practice teachers possessing an awareness of the potential life stressors that students may face while undertaking their placement, such as work/life balance issues, personal circumstances, financial constraints and also the widely-faced stigma associated with mental health. It can be incredibly daunting for students to embark on a social work placement and question and explore their self-confidence, ability, identity and resilience. It is clear from the results of the survey that social work students feel that it is important that practice teachers understand this and provide a level of emotional support, or simply empathy, alongside the academic requirements.
Our simple messages to practice teachers
Consider emotional and practical support – simply asking the student what support would work for them.
Demonstrate empathy on a personal level – remember that you were also a student once and we are all human.
Mind (2017) Mental health facts and statistics. Retrieved from: