Providing Learning Support for Students with Mental Health Difficulties Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities

Case Studies and Discussion Scenarios

Case study 4


I'm aware of three individuals with problems on trips I have led but I've answered with respect to the only one which did precipitate a crisis. It is worth prefacing it with the (obvious) observation that this is the rare exception — most such students cope admirably; in fact I'm sure most students with these problems never even come to our attention.


Residential and overseas (but not remote in culture from the UK), one week.

Mental health difficulty

Almost incessant weeping, and lots of talk about low self-esteem, inability to cope, fear, and generally depressive. No explicit mention of suicidal feelings, but the depression was clearly becoming more extreme over the 48 hours which the student spent on the trip.

Known by tutor at the time?

Yes, but not manifested in such an extreme form before — the student is believed to have cyclical clinical depression, but had not sought diagnosis.

Brief outline of responses made at the time

To student concerned: individual support and discussion of the various options, plus several phone calls home, where both the student and I discussed the situation with their mother. We then agreed that the best option for the individual, for the project group, and for the staff, was that the student should return home early. The airline used was very helpful in terms of looking after the student since we couldn't send a member of staff. With the student's agreement, I did tell them about the very distressed state.

To her project group: discussion about how the situation was affecting them, both personally and academically. They were quite supportive of the individual, but also concerned that they couldn't really help, and that the tension was making some of them feel under a lot of stress. I had regular contact with them for the rest of the trip, and together we negotiated how work should be divided up between all of them.

To the wider group: a brief announcement that the student had to go home early because of illness — made at the normal evening briefing of administrative issues.

On reflection, could the situation have been managed differently, and how could fieldwork planning, or communication with the student(s) or professionals before (or during) the events assisted?

The trip comes at the end of the vacation, and the student joined the trip abroad. This made it impossible to check the student's condition before leaving, even though I knew they were seeing a counsellor. Fortunately the student was known to the project group, which included mature students. This helped in the crisis and with their response in the aftermath. Due to the potential risks of keeping the student on the field trip — risks to their health, the stress it placed on the project group, and the relationship of the student concerned to the wider group, and due also the amount of my time which was being absorbed in coping with the situation — I think I was right to arrange for them to leave.

Had the student agreed to see a doctor beforehand, and been able to get their mood swings under better control, then the situation wouldn't have arisen, or not so extremely. Had we had an extra member of staff to support the student, the demands on my time would have been less, but I'm not sure whether it would have made the student any less distressed. In any case, without the student's condition being registered as a disability I doubt that we could have secured the necessary extra funding for this. I feel that this is quite an important issue in cases such as this one.

Page updated 14 December 2001

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