Imperial geologist tackles field trip mental health


Photo of Dr Cédric John on a rock in Wadi Sahtan, Oman.

Dr Cédric John on a geology trip in Wadi Sahtan, Oman, February 2018.

Field trips help students and academics explore the environments they study – but some suffer mental health difficulties when out on excursions.

Though field work is often seen as the highlight of studying or working in natural and earth sciences, the reality can be quite different.

The romantic notion of the hardy geologist - one who embraces the elements for months on end and loves the outdoors - can harm individuals who don’t fall under the stereotype Dr Cédric John Department of Earth Science & Engineering

Dr Cédric John, from Imperial College London’s Department of Earth Science & Engineering, is a geologist and mental health champion for his department.

In a Nature Geoscience comment piece written with Saira Khan from City University London, he identifies some major obstacles to mental wellbeing on trips, and how they might be overcome.

Caroline Brogan caught up with him to find out more.

Why might field work negatively impact someone’s mental health?

The romantic notion of the hardy geologist - one who embraces the elements for months on end and loves the outdoors - can harm individuals who don’t fall under the stereotype. It’s a great example of big expectations causing harm when the reality falls short.

In addition, working in the field can involve long periods in extreme

Photo of two off road vehicles travelling through a desert.
Though educational, the environments studied on excursions can be harsh.

temperatures, isolation from family and friends, and culture shock. Participants also spend day and night in close quarters with one group of people – so fostering good working relationships within these teams is key.

The main obstacles to mental wellbeing in the field, as identified in our Nature Geoscience  piece, are the harshness of the environment itself, the quality of leadership, fear of not achieving or of not being good enough (‘impostor syndrome’), and the quality of group dynamics.

How can excursion leaders help improve participants’ wellbeing?

Leaders in field work-oriented fields should realise that not everyone will enjoy field trips. To prevent harm and improve wellbeing, we recommend that leaders and trip goers:

  • Recognise the stress that excursions can have on participants, even if they themselves feel differently.
  • Receive training in mental health to help them take preventative steps, notice warning signs, intervene in a crisis, and foster non-judgemental attitudes towards those who struggle.
  • Foster a culture of tolerance and inclusivity during field activities, perhaps including being trained in handling conflict, bullying, and other hostile situations.
  • Help participants to regularly access their usual support system at home - for example planning stayovers at hotels with internet or phone access.
  • Keep the length of field activities to a reasonable number of hours per day.
  • Ensure opportunities for privacy and ‘down time’ in the evenings.
  • Model healthy behaviours by openly sharing their own challenges and tips on how they overcome them.

Why is good mental health in the field so important?

Mental health issues are common: One in three people will experience a mental health problem in any given year, and nine in ten of those experience stigma and discrimination. These figures are for people in their usual environment, with their usual support systems.

"With careful planning and training, the academic community can take major steps towards supporting the mental health and wellness of field trip participants at all career stages."

Poor mental health can negatively affect a person’s social, academic, and professional life. Improving mental health on campus is thus a major focus of universities, with several initiatives currently ongoing at Imperial such as Mental Health First Aid training.

However, while we promote good mental health on campus, I fear we are neglecting those who travel away from the campus comfort zone, where normal help is less accessible.

Describe some issues you’ve seen in your own field work.

I teach and conduct research in the field, mostly in North America and the Middle East.

Photo of Dr John with co-author Saira Khan in the Wahiba Sands region of Oman.
Dr John with co-author Saira Khan in Wahiba Sands, Oman October 2017.

I’ve found stress to be the underlying factor in most cases. It has led to conflict and marginalisation of students. Often, the desert locations we work in play a role, as they are harsh environments. Many times, the stress of the location and being far from home has exacerbated underlying issues like anxiety and depression.

I believe being able to discuss issues openly and honestly can help to stop them building up, which is why mental health training and fostering good relationships and open communication is so important.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Students benefit from getting hands-on experience of the environment they’re studying, and trips often play a defining role in their professional, and even personal, development.

Like any type of work, the excursions can be stressful – but stress is not always negative. If stress and other potential threats to wellbeing are handled well, then field work can be a positive experience for many students.

With careful planning and training, the academic community can take major steps towards supporting the mental health and wellness of field trip participants at all career stages.

Mental health in the field” by Cédric Michaël John and Saira Bano Khan, published 31 August 2018 in Nature Geoscience.

For more information on accessing mental health support see the NHS website.

For more information on mental health support at Imperial see the Health and Wellbeing website.

Image credits

Main image: Dr Cédric John

Image 2: Shutterstock/Paul Vinten

Image 3: Dr Cédric John 


Caroline Brogan

Caroline Brogan
Communications Division

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Contact details

Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 3415

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Student-experience, Strategy-share-the-wonder, Year-of-Engineering, Mental-health, Research, Nature, Education, Students, Geology, Human-behaviour, Development
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