“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
― Benjamin Franklin
The resilience and adaptability of the human mind is undeniable. With every experience, we acquire new perspectives, new sets of skills, new knowledge. It is also true that our human experience is constantly evolving, and thus, so does our thinking through our learning. The important step of our cognitive evolution lies within the interface between the world and us. For some, that interface appears to be a clear, linear input-output equation unclouded by any mental fog: the input is the experience and the output is the knowledge acquired. Some may say that those people may have been ‘born with a gift’ of learning easily, or perhaps they only learn what is required, devoid of any passion or connection to learning. For others, however, the interface is overshadowed by mental illnesses that make it more difficult to learn. The struggles are amplified when the ability to learn (and learn very well) becomes an expected, standardized necessity, as it does in post-secondary institutions. As passionately as one may feel about expanding one’s horizons in knowledge and wisdom, it can be as borderline impossible as it is to try to build a house without any tools. Unfortunately, it can also result in a self-fulfilling prophecy due the lack of faith in one’s abilities. This is just one impact of living with a mental illness(es).
“Involve me and I learn”. The powerful message articulated in these few words summarizes the core necessary component for creating a productive learning environment – inclusivity. The belief that all students learn in the same matter and have the same capacity to learn is out-dated and supports a one-size-fits-all model, which is far from the truth of the reality. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act aims to address this rift by designing classroom experience to meet the needs of those learning with disabilities. Diversity in learning styles as well as teaching methods should be the main topic of conversation in the context of creating inclusivity in any educational institution. One of the barriers that students struggling with mental illnesses must try to overcome is the associated stigma that prevents them from seeking help. It is important to reach out to the disability services department of your post-secondary institution to learn more about possible accommodations. Additionally, if you know someone who may benefit from said services, reach out to them – it can make their learning experience a lot less stressful.
There are strategies one can implement in order to make learning an enjoyable pursuit. Generally, learning with a mental illness is very difficult due to the continuous precipitation of acute stress reactions. As most of us know, stress causes many mental and physiological changes that can be very debilitating if not mitigated. Someone that has an already high baseline stress level, for example, someone suffering from anxiety, can find learning to be a source of even further distress – even if they are eager and passionate to get educated. Thus, one of the most important tips for successful learning is stress management. First, it is essential to get proper sleep. An adult should get an average of 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Sleep is vital for healing and repair, improving immune system function, lowering the chance of heart disease, improving memory (important for learning), regulating hormones and overall supporting our physical and mental wellbeing. Sleep deficiency is linked to decreased mental function e.g. poor decision making, poor problem solving, less emotional inhibition, and increased risk of depression, suicide and impulsivity. Thus, the first step in improving one’s learning capacity in the context of a mental illness is to start with proper sleep. Secondly, learning to manage stress on the daily basis is essential as it declutters your mind in order to have a clear interface with the outside world. One of the best ways to do that is through meditation or any mindful activities that allow your entire focus to shift on said activity. One great example of a meditation technique is to simply focus on your breath. Try to feel the air hitting your nostrils as you breathe in and the warmer air exiting them as you breathe out. Every time that your mind strays away, try to guide your mind back to your breath. As a result, you will be able to think more clearly; you will find yourself more relaxed and learning will become more efficient. Other activities can also provide the same benefits e.g. painting, knitting, doing puzzles. Likewise, physical activity is proven to enhance mental functioning through a release of endorphins. Exercise doesn’t have to be taking part in a sport or going to the gym; even taking a walk around your neighbourhood will allow you to clear your mind enough to tackle any mental task more efficiently. For example, while reading text, set up an alarm every hour to hour and a half to get up, do a quick stretch and go outside to breathe some fresh air. Do not continue to think about the topic you are studying; in fact, do not try to think at all. Think of your mental space as sacred; evaluate each negative or stressful thought that enters your mind as not worthy of being there. Such a sifting perspective on thoughts will teach you to value and love yourself – especially your mind – and consequently, will allow you to take outside information in more effortlessly.
Another important aspect of improving learning while also bettering mental health is to consider your learning style. Standardized evaluations may be practical in early schooling in building a basic foundation of knowledge; however, they are far from inclusive when it comes to taking everyone’s different learning styles into consideration. Therefore, while advances in technology that will eventually allow for the encompassment of different learning approaches are still developing, it would be helpful to adapt the information you have to learn to your preferred ‘input’ method. For example, if you prefer the auditory style of learning – instead of rereading lecture notes, record your lectures and relisten to them while you are commuting/driving. Similarly, visual learners may benefit from rewriting notes using various colors, fonts etc. For any student, making the studied material relevant to the real world is very beneficial in internalizing information. Though some subjects may require strict memorization, it should not limit one to be curious beyond the material and ask questions about how to relate the topic to the real world. Another tip is, thus, to ask questions. Professors and teachers are trained to understand and not judge the various learning styles students have. If someone needs more help in understanding something – e.g. someone with social anxiety may not be able to internalize material in lecture due to the presence of many people – then it is helpful to seek out one-on-one help with either the professor, peer tutor or simply a fellow student. The key is to understand and be aware of your learning style. One style is not better than another – that is a misconception that should not be propagated. Take pride in how you learn; it is a unique part of you just as any other trait.
“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”-Socrates. The ability to learn takes practice and an honest understanding of oneself. Learning should also be accompanied by desire, passion – a kindling of a flame – something that might be difficult to attain for those already struggling with mitigating their mental state and discouraged by it. The key lies in managing external stress to create a clear canvas for information. Sometimes the stress may be too difficult to manage, in which case it is best to seek help, which is readily available in most cases. Other times, you may find that adapting your own behaviour to your learning style will be very effective. Whichever route you take, remember that just because a fish cannot climb a tree but a monkey can, doesn’t make the fish stupid or a monkey a genius. We are all born different – and that’s the beauty of it.
Image obtained from: https://www.mbs.ac.uk/news/valuing-people-through-diversity-and-inclusion-/