New Year, New Lockdown, New Approach For Mental Wellbeing

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I think most of us would agree that this isn’t the start of the year we were hoping for.  Rising rates of infection, increased mortality and a third lockdown were not on our New Year’s Resolutions list.

Whilst we’ve been here before, this time feels different… 

The first lockdown was the first of its kind, it had shock value but the sun was shining and there was a feeling that it was something to get to the other side of and we could return to ‘normal’.  Optimism has been replaced by frustration and the light at the end of the tunnel seems just as far away as it was twelve months ago.

We now have the annual gloom of winter coupled with restrictions on movement, unknown economic consequences and separation from family and friends who might otherwise help us through this period. Is it any wonder that this lockdown is really starting to sap people’s spirits and negatively impact their mental wellbeing?

Public Health England has stated that 49% of people surveyed feel that the pandemic has impacted negatively on their mental health and wellbeing. This has led to a new government campaign focused on tackling the problem.

What is disappointing is that of the total of nine tips for dealing with stress, mood, anxiety and sleep, there is no mention of keeping the mind active by learning something new, which has undoubtedly been of huge benefit to our students since March last year.

A core purpose of adult education providers has always been to give people purpose through new experiences, knowledge and connecting them with other like-minded individuals. It seems to me that our mission has never been more important or relevant.

Of course, circumstance matters hugely.  If you live in cramped accommodation; with a young family; and/or lack of access to digital tools; then things are pretty difficult even for the most creative and positive.

Digital poverty is a reality. Researchers from the University of Cambridge state Digital exclusion is another facet of the deep inequalities which run through the social fabric of the UK, and is more widespread than many people are aware of. One thing is clear: the public health crisis currently gripping the UK stands to make the impacts of digital exclusion worse for the millions of people affected, and the poorest will be hit the hardest.’

Trying to juggle work and home-schooling with one device and a limited data package must be impossible.

As if lockdown itself were not hard enough, millions are living in fear of job losses. August-October last year saw a record number of roles being made redundant – 370,000.  The Bank of England has predicted that unemployment will rise from the existing 4.9% published in December, to 7.5% by the end of the year. For those who are seeking qualifications to progress in education, into employment or within employment, the last year must have been hugely frustrating and disheartening.

The importance of adult learning

So how does a bricks and mortar adult education college – City Lit – committed to improving the lives of the community it serves, respond to the challenges of a pandemic?

The phrase “digital revolution” has been overused and misused for the last two decades but in education this might finally be true.  Learning providers have adapted and moved online through necessity so that they can continue to survive and support their student communities.

It hasn’t been an easy transition but following a steep learning curve for both teachers and learners, there is now a comfortable rhythm and cadence that works for many.  Designing the delivery of courses to include those who might only have a smartphone as well as trying to schedule courses so as not to conflict with home schooling or work have been just some of the challenges we have faced.

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Adult learning opportunities have historically been focused on the big cities with dense populations and over the last few decades many colleges and local authorities have been forced to reduce or even close their adult learning offer due to financial constraints.  In my opinion, there has also been an unnecessary focus on formal qualifications and work-related skills which are obviously very important, but they are not the only motivations for adults who want and need to learn.

I find it amazing that I have to say it, but adults who are continuing to learn throughout the different stages of their lives, is a very good thing.  In their now classic book, 100-year life, Professors Andrew Scott and Lynda Gratton highlight the effect of longer life expectancy on work and leisure.

The idea that leaving education at 18 or 21 years old equips you for the next 60 years is now farcical. Just think of the huge technological and societal changes within the past 20 years.  Baroness Susan Greenfield, the world renowned neuro-scientist, talked at City Lit a few years ago about the huge benefits to the health of the brain that is achieved by lifelong learning.

That was all true in normal times but these aren’t normal times

In normal times, City Lit would have hundreds of students coming through our doors every day – and that simple way of coming together, into a vibrant, lively environment has been taken away by lockdown.

Without this daily interaction, it’s easy to forget the impact that adult learning can have on an individual – however, my inbox recently reminded me of the tenacity, ambition and commitment of many of our adult learners.

Whilst City Lit learners are full of praise for our adaptability and being able to continue to offer learning throughout this time, I have been struck by the nature of their remarks: “I am sure I speak for many students when I say that your courses have kept me sane during lockdown and all the other restrictions…the courses have given structure and purpose to my life.”

Lockdown learning is different from when people used to come together physically.  I accept that going for a coffee with fellow students after class isn’t easily replaced by Zoom.  However, if you are stuck at home on your own, the online community that you become part of can be a crucial lifeline.

Learning gives people purpose, it’s a reason to get up and be excited, and to share that experience with other people brings much-needed connection at a time when it is all too easy to become isolated.

That should…no, must…help support people’s mental wellbeing.   For instance, learning a language, long understood to help prevent neuro-degenerative diseases, provides intellectual rigour and community, as well as the hope that one day you will get to use your skill in the real world.

Supporting our ‘mental wealth’

Learning is not just the courses but events and other activities that can ensure our community remains engaged and stimulated.  We dedicate a week each year to our Mental Wealth Festival, this year all our events were online for obvious reasons. The Festival aims to highlight the way mental health issues impact on so many aspects of daily life, and how the arts, politics, culture, faith and the media can support our ‘mental wealth’.

Baroness Hollins, who was the inspiration for the Festival half a decade ago, hit upon a great idea that that mental wealth, like wealth in general, can change throughout your life.  Sometimes our mental wealth is poor or in deficit and other times it is in abundance.  I think most of us can relate to the fact that our reserves have been depleted over the past year and would benefit from any restocking we can get.

So finally, whether it is with City Lit or any other of the many learning providers, think about learning this lockdown.  Improving your mental wellbeing, being part of a community, learning something new, brushing up on a previous passion, or just taking a break from Netflix to help you get through this period.  You never know, you might ignite a new passion that lasts well beyond this difficult time.

With so many courses online over this coming winter, I can’t think of a better way to provide some positive support, community and enjoyment.

About the author

Mark Malcomson CBE is the Principal and Chief Executive at City Lit, one of Europe’s largest adult education colleges. City Lit offer thousands of short courses for adults in performing and visual arts, languages, humanities and specialist education in deaf education and speech therapy. Mark was previously Director of Executive Education at London Business School, 2007-11 and prior to that President of the New York Institute of Finance.

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