In touch with… Gareth Furber

For Gareth Furber, e-mental Health Project Officer at the Student Centre, every day revolves around mental health and wellbeing. It’s a different world to his post doctoral research days, but equally challenging as he shares insights and skills to help students build a better life. 

How engaged do you find students are in the University’s mental health services, and their appetite for information on improving mental health?

Wellbeing is of primary importance to students and I think they have a real hunger for information and services in this area.

They want, as do those of us teaching and supporting them, to have an enjoyable and rewarding experience at university.

Over the last couple of years our team at HCDS have got better at letting students know the various programs we run in addition to clinical services that they can use to build wellbeing. This has led to increased demand for, and engagement with, our services and programs.

We still have a long way to go though. We still encounter many students who aren’t aware of the support services available. We also need to get some of our services out to students who are not on the main Bedford Park Campus. Having digital channels that students can access is a big part of that, but students still appreciate more human connections in this regard.

Finally, we are trying to expand the range of self-help and self-development materials we are providing, so students have something in addition to the more face-to-face programs and services we provide. This includes our handouts on a range of different topics that students can get at the service but also online – like our Introduction to Mental Fitness Course delivered via blog.

What area of mental health services or prevention do you find the most exciting?

The things I am probably most obsessed with at the moment include nutrition and mental health, the role of meaning and purpose as a buffer to suffering, and financial control and its relationship to a sense of safety and security.

The nutrition stuff is interesting because of the possibilities of altering mood through diet. For example, the use of the Mediterranean Diet to prevent and treat depression. It is such a great example of the mind-body connection and another potential tool you can give those who are struggling emotionally.

The meaning and purpose stuff emerges from me trying to understand what sustains people during inevitable adversity. It strikes me that having a ‘higher purpose’ might be a powerful antidote to a sense of hopelessness and pointlessness. But how does one find a higher purpose? What does ‘higher purpose’ even mean?

Finally, the financial control stuff interests me because the earlier you learn to manage money, the greater the compounding effects and the quicker you can establish some sense of financial security, which I think plays a big role in wellbeing.

What does a normal day look like for you?

The team at Health, Counselling and Disability Services (HCDS) now has a number of digital information channels through which we communicate to students:

This includes original content of my own on the topics of mental fitness, self-care, productivity and wellbeing, as well as promoting the activities of others in the university who are also focused on student wellbeing.

I also get to spend quite a bit of time doing presentations around the university on topics like mental fitness, self-care, preparing for work placements and the support services and programs available to students. I enjoy this opportunity to road-test material I have developed. You can tell pretty quickly if your ideas are resonating with students or not.

Lastly, I have an ongoing role in helping HCDS innovate and launch new services and programs. This might be as simple as promoting programs run by our counsellors (e.g. Mindful Yoga, Mindfulness for Academic Success) or as complex as co-creating new programs and evaluating their feasibility and effectiveness.

What made you decide to work in the research field? – and change over to a service focus?

I kinda fell into the research work after my PhD, rather than deliberately deciding to work in it. But I enjoyed it and early on got involved in some really cool projects. I was in child and adolescent mental health research for 10 years.

When my last contract finished at the end of our NHMRC project, I knew I wanted to carve out a space for myself that sat between research (acquiring knowledge) and teaching/clinical work (sharing knowledge).

I was mindful that the field of psychology has a lot to offer the general public in terms of strategies for improving wellbeing and wanted to be one of those communicating those strategies. One of my side projects (Visualising Mental Health – was growing nicely and I wanted to work in a similar space. The opportunity for the eMental Health Project Officer came up and I jumped at the chance.

As I’ve developed this role, it has become clear to me that I am fascinated with the question –“What constitutes a satisfying and/or rewarding life and how do you build one?” Trying to answer this question allows me to explore the many different contributors to wellbeing and I really enjoy sharing what I find along the way. I never really thought that I wanted to teach but the issue wasn’t about teaching, it was about having a topic I really wanted to talk about.

Have you found it challenging adapting your style from academic writing to engaging a general student audience?

Not really, although I think I still have a long way to go. To be honest, although I understand the need for rules and process and structure in scientific literature, I find academic writing to be the more unnatural way for me to write.

In contrast, there is a freedom in writing for a more general audience that I enjoy. It feels more like starting a really interesting conversation with someone, rather than a formalised record of what I’ve done or discovered. You can interject your own personality and feelings and experiences into the process.

As my thoughts and ideas on the topic of mental fitness are refined, I hope to be writing about it in both academic and non-academic settings. I’ve started my ‘What is mental fitness?” paper for a future academic journal in addition to the less formal lessons I am writing on the blog –

How do you come up with your blog topics?

When I started this job I knew I’d have no trouble with coming up with content. If you consider my task to inform students about what the science and practice of psychology says about building wellbeing and productivity, there is a vast repository of collected knowledge on this topic.

As I got more comfortable in the role, I started building an underlying wellbeing/ mental fitness framework that now guides my selection of topics. At present, this includes 15 skill areas that I try to cover over the course of the year. Some skill areas are more relevant to students (e.g. advanced study skills, mastering emotions) so I tend to focus more on those.

Many of the ideas for topics come directly from students or counsellors. Accordingly, I encourage students to let me know what they’d like to know more about via our FLO topic – I then try to mix that with talking about and raising topics they might not have considered before but are still very much related to wellbeing and productivity.

I also try to get a balance between planned posts versus spontaneous ones. For example, I write a planned lesson every week or so on mental fitness, but then also will write articles on a whim if I encounter an interesting concept or idea or piece of research.

One thing that took me a little while to wrap my head around was that a blog is a very different writing medium to writing for publication. Blogs work better when you focus as much on the journey towards something, as the end point. To make that sound less obtuse, I might be writing an article on self-help, but along the way encounter a bunch of interesting resources or ideas. It is just as valid on a blog to talk about those, as it is to work on the ultimate self-care article.

Each post is part of a bigger narrative you are trying to create. In my case, that narrative is curiosity about the process of building a better life.

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