UK universities called upon to adopt new 'emotional fitness' mental health app
Several students report feeling anxious and stressed at university. A new app can help. Source: Shutterstock

A new ’emotional fitness’ app targeted to students for the prevention of mental health problems has been developed in the UK.

Called ‘Fika’, which in Swedish, loosely translates to mean ‘cake and coffee break’. It’s a term used for the concept of taking a few minutes out of a busy day to slow down and appreciate the good things in life.

The app is meant to help students with their ’emotional fitness’ levels, teaching them how to develop important skills such as resilience, coping skills and active listening skills, how to create healthy and long-lasting relationships, as well as how to take criticism and use it constructively.

According to the website, “Fika is inspired by Scandinavian culture and draws on scientific evidence from Sports Psychology, CBT, Positive Psychology, ACT and Mindfulness to build Emotional Fitness.”

The Fika app is meant to help people get ’emotionally fit’. Source: Fika

Nick Bennett, founder of the app, said on University Mental Health Day, “The world is emotionally out of shape. We all know the benefits of regular physical exercise, but what about the benefits of regular emotional exercise?

“At Fika, we are on a mission with our university partners to prioritise proactive emotional support for students, and help them prepare better for their transition into university and beyond, into the world of work.

“Depression, anxiety and loneliness are growing issues for UK universities, and student wellbeing services are struggling to cope with rapidly accelerating demand. We are calling on all UK universities to make contact with Fika and roll out our new, scalable, preventative, app-based approach to student wellbeing.”

Speaking to The PIE News, Bennet said that trials had shown that “international students face unique challenges during periods of mobility.”

He added, “For students arriving in the UK from overseas, Fika will be an invaluable confidence-builder. Through our university partners we know that isolation is a key issue for international students. Fika is uniquely placed to improve cross-cultural inclusion.”

A recent poll published by The Guardian found that “states of psychological distress and illness are on the rise in universities, with “alarmingly high” levels of anxiety, loneliness, substance misuse and thoughts of self-harm.”

Based on responses from a sample of students who took part in an online survey, the poll revealed worrying results, including the fact that “half of the students (50.3%) who took part reported thoughts of self-harm – almost twice as high as reported rates in 2017 – while just under one in 10 (9.4%) thought of self-harm often or always.”

Other alarming results were reflected in the survey: four in ten use alcohol or drugs to cope with their problems; and 1 in 3 have experienced a psychological issue for which they felt they needed professional help.

States of psychological distress and illness are on the rise in universities in the UK, a worrying trend. Source: Shutterstock

Bennet said that it is important to shift the narrative of mental health from negative to positive.

He said, “As these new figures reveal alarmingly high levels of anxiety, loneliness, substance misuse and thoughts of self-harm – let’s admit we have a problem in the UK and then, critically, let’s do something about it. The sad fact is we’ve allowed our cultural focus and the language that stems from it to bind us to a negative perception of mental health and focus on cure, not prevention.

“We live in a self-made, algorithm-based echo chamber, and the internet is always listening – so if we use negative language like ‘am I depressed?’ or ‘I feel lonely’ in our instant messaging, internet searches and conversations, we will be served content which reinforces these negative feelings.

“If we change the narrative to a positive one: ‘How can I stay focused on my goals?’ ‘How can I build my resilience?’, ‘How can I improve my relationships?’, the impact, not only in the content we see online, but equally on our own emotional health, could be enormous.”

That’s why the app takes on a ‘training approach’, operating on the concept that our ’emotional muscles’ need just as much training as our physical ones, and we need to use positive terminology when it comes to addressing these issues.

He said, “We need to use positive, aspirational language to change our attitude to exercising our emotions. If having good empathy becomes the new six pack – suddenly developing active listening skills will become a lot more appealing to all of us.”

The app has been endorsed by spokespeople across the universities of Coventry, Exeter, Lincoln and Manchester Metropolitan, and Bennet urges other universities to try this new approach to student well-being.

Roger Bretherton, Principal Lecturer (Enterprise) at the University of Lincoln, said, “As an academic psychologist who researches and applies the science of character strengths, Fika is the approach to mental health I’ve been waiting for.

“Emotional Fitness, as a concept, places the ability to care for ourselves and one another back in our own hands, by drawing on a wealth of evidence-based wellbeing practices that have been accumulating in psychology for the last few decades. It’s great to work with Fika and other university partners to develop an accessible, proactive and preventative approach to mental health.

Universities, policymakers and parents must come together to provide new ways and resources for mental health problems, as well as let students know where to find them.

Apps like Fika can help students combat mental health problems before they escalate into behaviours like substance abuse or self-harm.