Posted 10 June 2020
Interview by Laura Snoad

“It’s virtually impossible to separate how you feel about your work and yourself”

In an extract from our Insight Report into mental health in higher education, Brighton tutor Jasper Goodall explains why he chose to take matters into his own hands and train as a counsellor to provide extra support for his students.

Jasper Goodall has taught on the illustration course at the University of Brighton since 2001, but in 2014, the increasing mental health needs of his students prompted him to take the unorthodox step of retraining as a counsellor. Since he completed his course at The Psychosynthesis Trust, he began to think about how the principles of personal counselling could be applied to an educational context, and now actively embeds psychological principles in his project briefs to help students address self-criticism and creative anxiety.

Here he gives us insight into the scale of mental health issues among creative students, the huge impact it is having on tutors and makes a convincing case for providing counselling training for all frontline university staff.

Before your training, what were some of the issues that you were seeing among your students and what impact was that having on you?
I was seeing what felt like an increasing number of students who were getting, for want of a better phrase, ‘creative paralysis’, stopping them from being able to make work, or restricting themselves for fear of failing. Someone would come to me and say “I’m stuck,” and then I would have to work out what that really meant.

Again and again I would talk to students about how they were feeling in terms of their confidence around their work, and at some point might say, “I expect this is probably not limited to your work?” Quite often they would tell me that it was a bigger problem. What I realised, partly through my students, but also because it’s happened to me and other creative people close to me, is that it’s virtually impossible to separate how you feel about your work and how you feel about yourself.

“It’s virtually impossible to separate how you feel about your work and how you feel about yourself.”

What you expect, or what the rest of society or academia suspects, is that you sit down and talk about the work. But what do you do when there isn’t work to talk about, because the student says they can’t do any? Part of your role as an academic suddenly involves working out why the person is feeling this way.

Creative block is a huge part of being creative. Sometimes you can’t find the motivation, inspiration or mental strength to make work, so how do you do overcome that? What occurred to me was that courses were never designed to address that fundamental part of being creative. There aren’t the mechanisms to look at the psychological background of why someone is stuck. I became very interested in that.

I spoke to someone running the course about whether they could come in to work with students, and she recommended some books, so I had evidence when I asked the university for funding. I went off and read the books and realised that I wanted to do counselling myself.

“Courses were never designed to address [creative block] as a fundamental part of being creative.”

Do you have any advice for other tutors that might be struggling with the changing mental health needs of their students?
Just because [a student] has a mental health issue, it doesn’t mean they can’t fulfil their aspirations. In my experience, sometimes not working compounds the problem. It can lead to a feeling of shame and opens them to inner-critic attacks, which can make them even more avoidant. Oftentimes working (sometimes in a more straightforward way – say, simple location drawing for example) is the way out of a hole. The sense of achievement leads to increased self-esteem, and slowly they can come back to more balance.

And if you can afford it, or you can get your university to pay for it, do a short counselling skills course. It’s brilliant. You would be a hugely valuable asset in terms of the course, and it’s also valuable for an individual teacher’s sense of safety and self-competence. Nurses do it, why don’t we?

Do you have any advice for students?
Don’t rush into higher education. Take some time out before university. The students who have had a year or two out before university tend to be more stable, motivated and able to deal with disappointment. In addition, your pre-frontal lobes – the part of the brain that deals with perspective-taking and self-regulation – don’t stop growing until you are 25. Maybe higher education comes too early?

Also, there’s a massive misunderstanding about what what university is for. Often at open days, I talk to A-Level students and they just want to get their degree as quickly as possible. They see a piece of paper with a grade on it as being the point of university, rather than as an experience where you’re growing in all kinds of directions.

“[Counselling courses] are valuable for a teacher’s sense of safety and self-competence. Nurses do it, why don’t we?”

Have you observed changes in student mental health since the Coronavirus pandemic?
Obviously this pandemic is affecting everybody both in and out of education in profound ways. Some people will be pitched into extreme difficulty with loss of income; some will be having existential anxieties. There are big questions and frightening realisations being raised about the fragility of our modern-world system.

It is understandable that those students with pre-existing issues are having a hard time – that’s no surprise. It is also very hard to know to what extent they are suffering. We are teaching online and have no contact beyond video calls. Some have gone very off-radar, and all we can do is email to offer support if they want it, but if they don’t reply or show up on video calls, there comes a point when we have to trust that we have done all we can. The majority have gone home, which is a help, as they will hopefully have a supportive network in place.

I would encourage students who are feeling that the pandemic has somehow robbed them of a chance at high achievement to reflect upon the years of learning they have been through. The embodied experience of knowledge that they carry inside them is the thing of real value, and it’s that knowledge that will bear fruit for years to come. As all creatives like to say, “Nobody ever asked me what grade I got, they just look at my work.”


This interview is taken from our latest Insight Report How Can We Improve Mental Health in Creative Higher Education? published in May 2020. This extract has been shortened; read it in full by clicking the link above.

Interview by Laura Snoad
Mention Jasper Goodall
Mention University of Brighton