Helping penguins to swim

Ray Martin reviews Karisa Krcmar’s book about the importance of helping students in higher education develop good mental health.

Published on 24th January 2021 | Written by Ray Martin | Photo by Manon Buizert on Unsplash

Krčmář, K. (2020) Helping Penguins to Swim: case studies for building resilience for good mental health amongst students in higher education. Aberdeen, UK: Inspired By Learning.

It’s difficult to resist a book that begins:

When students first arrive at university they huddle together looking vaguely out of place, uncomfortable and ungainly. They make a lot of noise but don’t appear to be doing very much.

Then some will say: “I’m a penguin. There’s the water. I’m off”. They dive in and swim around confidently having a great time. Others will say: “I’m a penguin. I’m looking for the water.” We point them in the right direction. They dive in and swim around confidently having a great time.

Then there are those who say: “I’m a penguin. I don’t know what to do or where to go.”

Some don’t even know that they are penguins.

Helping Penguins to Swim (2020) is designed to support the last two groups in particular, says editor Karisa Krcmar, but many of the case studies support all students, or students who may have swum rather well at the start but begin to flounder later. And it is much punchier than this opening suggests.

The book is intended, Krcmar says, ‘as a call for more direct action’ to support the wellbeing of students (p.21). She’s interested in ways to build in support rather than fire-fighting but recognises that ‘until mental health concerns and actions are included in league tables and frameworks, not many VCs will take direct action to upload resources towards resilience rather than crisis (ibid)’ – and this despite the growing number of students with mental health problems and the stigma attached to admitting it: the Mental Health Foundation (2018) suggests that only one quarter of those who committed suicide were in touch with the support services at their institutions when they died (p.16). Something more far-reaching is needed here.  

This need was addressed at the 2015 International Conference on Health Promoting Universities and Colleges. One outcome was eight key principles for action set out in the Okanagan Charter (2015):

  • use of holistic settings and systems
  • ensure a comprehensive, campus-wide approach
  • use participatory approaches and engage the voice of students and others
  • develop trans-disciplinary collaborations and cross-sector partnerships
  • promote research, innovation and evidence-informed action
  • build on strengths
  • value local and indigenous communities’ contexts and priorities
  • act on existing universal responsibility and ‘right to health’ enshrined in Human Rights legislation.

The UK Healthy Universities Network, as a signatory to the Okanagan Charter, is part of this global movement and supports its members to ‘develop and implement whole university approaches to health, wellbeing and sustainability’ (p.11).

‘It is argued,’ says Krcmar, ‘that these principles call for coordinated action from the top down … not just delivered to the door of under-resourced counselling and mental health services’. But she adds bleakly: ‘We can find no evidence that, to date, university executive boards have yet taken a university-wide approach to building good health strategies but have delegated the strategic thinking to … student services’ (ibid).

The case studies in Helping Penguins to Swim demonstrate a range of projects and thinking that support the aims of the Okanagan Charter, understand the importance of proactive support and recognise that universities need to work with outside services such as the NHS in order to create and maintain resilience among their students: the challenge is too big for HEIs to deal with alone.

There is, perhaps, a particular urgency for arts universities here: those working in creative fields are three times as likely to suffer from mental health issues as the general public (Shorter et al. 2018:5)*, and, as psychotherapist Sarah Niblock (2018) says, ‘Free yoga won’t fix wellbeing in the creative industries.’  

It seems apparent that, as part of their brief for preparing students for the workplace, arts-centred universities need to build resilience into all their courses – and even into the fabric of their buildings. (Indeed, a chapter here deals with the role and importance of purpose-built student accommodation for wellbeing.)

Another area where resilience is a necessity is the health sector, and there are two chapters on initiatives in this field. It is no surprise to see a case study here from De Montfort that confronts many of the issues Krcmar highlights. It is a proactive wellbeing initiative that is embedded in a Pharmacy course from the outset and involves academic and student services staff working collaboratively within student workshops. The course is quite clearly fronted by an academic tutor, which establishes its academic credentials, and the student services input comes from the DMU Coaching Team, thus avoiding suggestions of weakness/stigma attached to mental health issues. The department liaises with the charity Pharmacist Support – supporting Krcmar’s contention that universities need to involve outside agencies. (More particularly, she feels ‘New models of student care that integrate universities more effectively with the NHS need to be developed’, p.16.)

One of the most vulnerable groups at university is the rapidly growing autistic group, 79% of whom have mental health problems. This is one area where many universities have been putting in supportive initiatives such as pre-university inductions, so two cheers at least for a wide variety of initiatives around autism. Three for the whole-university initiative described here by Wolverhampton’s Ellie Horton, with their award-winning ’Three Minutes to Save a Life’ programme.

Applause too for the Winchester University Play and Creativity Festival (, which Alison James mentions in her chapter on play, where she looks in particular at the value of Lego Serious Play, which has been spreading rapidly in the business world for team work and ideas creation. James has adapted it for team working in HE (very often an area of immense student stress/distress) and for building personal development plans (PDPs).

The editor contributes a chapter on her successful Loughborough Mindfulness for Study programme (now also a student self-help book: Mindfulness for Study: from procrastination to action’ Both the Mental Health Foundation (2018) and Mind (2018) recommend mindfulness to alleviate depression, anxiety and stress, all of which may impact on learning. There is evidence too that mindfulness can improve attention, focus, memory and concentration (p.60). Krcmar’s workshops combined mindfulness with study skills to improve students’ wellbeing and their work – and they took off: what was first a course for SpLD students is now offered to students across the university.   

Then there’s the very vexed question of sexual harassment. In 2016 the government called on HE to ’explore what more can be done to support the higher education (HE) sector to prevent and respond to incidents of violence and sexual harassment’ (HM Government, 2016:17 cited on p.126). Two cheers for the universities’ response in Changing the Culture (2016), and a standing ovation for Oxford’s response: their Sexual Harassment and Violence Support Service (2018) is a masterclass in design, development and execution. It has gained the confidence of a great many students since 2018, so much so that students who suffered abuse some time ago, as far back as childhood, feel able to talk there. The service has outside support from the local Rape Crisis centre – having an independent sexual violence adviser (ISVA), says author and award-winning sexual support specialist Pete Mandeville, sends ‘a powerful message that our students will have access to independent expert advice’ (p.131).

If you read nothing else, read this chapter. You may even get goose bumps at the depth of thinking and organisation that have gone into the project.

And admire the Finnish way of doing things too (the final chapter): the Finns treat good mental health as a life skill (embedded in the school curriculum and higher education), supported by national non-profit organisations; and they recognise the need for strong mental health in the working world – a ‘fundamental resource for a sustainable society’ (p.154). No fire-fighting here: resilience is built into education from the outset (p.160).

*The figures are based on research in Northern Ireland, but there is no reason to believe that figures for the creative industries in the UK as a whole are any better.


Niblock, S (2018) .Mental wellbeing: why the creative industry is harming its employees. [accessed on 8 Sept. 2020]

Shorter, G.W.  O’Neill, S.M and McElherron, L. (2018) Changing Arts and Minds: a survey of health and wellbeing in the creative sector. Inspire: Wellbeing For All [accessed on 8 Sept. 2020]

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