We are all Matryoshka dolls: How do we open the mind to help struggling students?

Just to let you know that this article discusses mental health and suicide, which may be a trigger for some.

This blog is a guest post by James Murray. James is a bereaved father, having lost his son Ben to suicide in 2018, aged 19. James is helping the education sector find ways to better identify and support struggling and vulnerable students.


Matryoshka dolls (commonly known as Russian dolls) traditionally represented the mother carrying a child within her womb, but they are also used to illustrate “the unity of body, soul, mind, heart and spirit”.*

The Suprematist artists knew that the outward appearance of a person’s wellbeing may be meaningless… it is the hidden layers that hold the key to what they are really feeling – so how do we access those inner dolls?

This is a challenge that is currently occupying the minds of a team of academics, psychologists and technologists at Northumbria University, Buckinghamshire New University and the University of East London. Commissioned by the OfS to make ‘step change’ in student mental health, this team will focus on students in transition and ensuring ‘early intervention’ by creating a more proactive approach to student support. My involvement is through the ‘lived experience’ of losing my son Ben to suicide in 2018, aged 19. We met on his last day and he told me that he “wished he had been more open” in his life. There was no indication of what he had planned for his last act in the physical world.

Ben was always a very sensitive child. Coming back from school he told us that “everyone is being nasty to me”. Now looking back, I wonder how many of these incidents – experienced by many children – had a more profound effect on Ben. Sensitivity was also his strength. He noticed things others don’t. “Dad you are missing the small things” he said, flipping over a leaf to expose a colourful insect in a forest in Borneo. Looking at his ‘Snowdrops’ image (painted when he was 8 years old) my partner observed how Ben had painted a broken snowdrop alongside 2 healthy ones – this has become symbolic to us of his caring spirit, a spirit which led one friend to report “he was like a father to me” and another to say he was “simply the kindest man”.

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We learn so much from Ben’s life. What is relevant here are 2 things: the visual realm of ‘spotting the signs’ and then that which is ‘quite apart’ from the physical world and needs ‘disclosure’ by the student. Our project recognises that we need to do a better job of seeing the ‘Whole Student’. Information is scattered across technology silos, academic departments, halls and student unions, like fragments of a masterpiece distributed across separate canvasses, some of which aren’t even in the same gallery. Secondly, we need to acknowledge the dark half of Malevich’s images, or the nested dolls that the student wants to keep hidden. This is harder… but we have a plan.

Spotting the signs at scale is made easier by using technology to correlate between disengagement in academic study and ‘non-payment of fees’ for example. This can provide the prompt for a face-to-face ‘data-driven conversation’ where the inner dolls could be accessed. Ben did disclose his ‘anxiety’ and inability to ‘connect’ with the course to a tutor on a phone-call, but there was no face-to-face follow-up and no check that action had been taken to seek medical help. Perhaps we need auditable processes that stop such information hand-offs? We know Ben tried to self-diagnose and the inquest revealed mental health searches he had made online. For young men like Ben (70% of student suicides), perhaps we need to meet them on their own terms. In their room at 3am in the morning, anonymously suffering. This is why I am excited that the Enlitened app will be anonymously asking students WHO-5 questions like “over the last 2 weeks, to what extent have you felt calm and relaxed?”. Low WHO-5 scorers of ‘significant concern’ can be signposted to their university’s wellbeing services, their GP, or to counselling services such as Kooth.

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If any of the themes explored in this post have affected you, or you’d like to speak with someone about it, please contact us at enlitened.enquiries@thestudentroom.com or get in touch directly with either the Samaritans on 116 123 or Papyrus’s HOPELINEUK on 0800 068 41 41.