Integrating ‘duty of care’ into training

The following is an article advocating a better integration of ethical ‘duty of care’ in contexts of creative arts training:

College students in Creative and Performing Arts – an emerging mental health challenge?

by Dr Mark Seton and Dr Lycia Trouton


We want students in the creative and performing arts to become bold, innovative ‘risk-takers’. Creativity is best informed and nurtured through sensitivity to both the internal and external world of the artist AND the willingness to take risks and make ‘mistakes’. At best, our teaching interactions with students appropriately support them through both these challenging experiences. If you are a lecturer-practitioner teaching either the next generation or a multi-generational group of students in the creative and performing arts you have both the privilege and opportunity to pass on what has and hasn’t worked for you, creatively and professionally. In fact, your own established set of skills and artistic sensibility will have been shaped by both life experiences and your own experiences of being an arts student. However, what has worked for you may not work for others.


As arts practitioners and educators, we have recently reflected on our own formative artistic years. Not all our own training and early creative work experiences produced, in us, the most sustainable practices. We variously experienced confronting exposure to art works for which we were not prepared, sometimes harsh criticism of our own formative attempts to create new work, taunts and rejections, and sometimes exploitation, under the guise of ‘work experience’. Some of this purported ‘toughening up’ actually proved counter-productive in that we lost sensitivity and confidence in the very creative processes we were seeking to nurture in ourselves. And it has taken some years and sometimes some costly personal and professional choices to regain our capacity to function holistically as arts practitioners and lecturers with integrity. We believe there can be another way in higher education arts institutions to value both creative risk-taking and appropriate ‘duty of care’ for eager arts students.


Maximising support; minimizing distress

In attracting highly sensitive and creative students, who may sometimes find themselves isolated from others in their giftedness, individuality, and vision, arts educators need to be attuned to the potential for students’ mental wellbeing to be at risk at sometime during their training as arts practitioners. Daryl Cloonan, a counselor with the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne, Australia, in his evaluation of arts students observes:

Artists occupy an unusual position in society, and their training exhibits significant differences from that of other professions. Trainee artists must constantly face direct, often devastating discoveries about themselves and their talent; assessment is direct and often subjective, conducted in a very competitive environment, and students must overcome many doubts, both of their abilities and of life after graduation. (2008: 42)

Practising mental health clinicians in universities have argued that the tertiary education sector is being confronted with
 many more students who require assistance in achieving 
and maintaining mental health, or managing the academic impact of mental ill-health. Diagnosis of mental illness among university populations is growing (Collins and Mowbray, 2005; Vivekenanda, Telly and Trethowan, 2011). In addition, studies of student populations report higher levels of disorders, especially anxiety related, than the norm for their age group (for example Connell, Barkham & Mellor-Clark, 2007; Harrison et al., 1999, Stallman, 2008; Stallman, 2010; Stallman and Shochet, 2009; Webb et al, 1996). The prevalence of mental illness is unrelated to academic aptitude, although it can impact substantially on learning outcomes (Wajeeh, Ward & Shern, 2002). In Australia, rates of mental disorder peak within the 16-24 years age group, with more than one in four young adults having an anxiety, depressive or substance use disorder (Commonwealth of Australia, 2004). This is the age when young people make the transition to university and most complete their undergraduate degree (Norton and Brett 2011). What makes this especially significant is that the majority of those who wish to become professional artists now begin their training at undergraduate level. Therefore, current Higher Education teaching practices in arts training institutions should take into account the increased risk for potential mental health issues amongst these already sensitive and highly motivated young people.

‘duty of care’ in teaching-learning interactions

We would advocate that one way in which duty-of-care can be involved in encouraging students to create brave and risk-taking new work is that the student be guided carefully through carefully designed and paced lectures, rather than ‘thrown’ into their artistic mediums (visual, performative, etc.) and each discipline’s particular concepts-through-materials or processes.  This is in contrast to the often confrontational approach to training and artistic ‘initiation’ in the 1960s and 70s with which many of us mid-career and aging practitioner- educators were imbued.


It may also be worthwhile to review the ways in which some assessment practices are convened by the lecturer-practitioner, in particular, the so-called “Critique”.  During a “Crit” student-artist’s work is displayed, publicly, for critical evaluation and assessment.  This is often an oral evaluation by discussion between peers and teaching staff.  It is during this phase of the teaching process that student recall seems to have the most clarity.  In the arena of The Crit, life-long personal and professional hurdles, concerns and challenges can be impacted directly. Therefore, this phase of the teacher’s tool-kit and methodology deserves careful reflection.


With a hope to minimize possible mental health issues among both students and staff, we would outline some core principles for creating an ethical approach to teaching in the creative and performing arts that addresses such potential harm. The notion of harm is a key consideration in the Australian guidelines in the National Statement of Ethics in Human Research (2007). Alongside the importance of ethical research practices, we would suggest that teaching practices will be ethically acceptable only if potential benefits justify potential risks. Such benefits should include a safe place for the vocalising of students’ psychological, physical, social and aesthetic needs and desires. A risk, according to the National Statement, is “a potential for harm, discomfort or inconvenience” (2007:15). It involves the likelihood that a harm (or discomfort or inconvenience) will occur and the severity of the harm, including its consequences. It’s sobering to reflect that, in creative learning environments in universities and colleges, teaching and learning contexts may lead to harms, discomforts and/or inconveniences for certain other students. The Statement identifies the following differences between a harm, a discomfort and an inconvenience:

1. Potential harms in the learning environment:

could be compared to

physical harms: including injury, illness, pain;

psychological harms: including feelings of worthlessness, distress, guilt, anger or fear related, for example, to disclosure of sensitive or embarrassing information;

devaluation of personal worth: including being humiliated, manipulated or in other ways treated disrespectfully or unjustly;

social harms: including damage to social networks or relationships with others; discrimination in access to benefits, services, employment or insurance; social stigmatisation;


2. Potential discomforts in the learning environment:

could be compared to

minor side-effects of medication

the discomforts related to measuring blood pressure

anxiety induced by an interview


3. Potential inconveniences in the learning environment:

could be compared to

filling in a form

participating in a street survey

giving up time to participate in a class

(2007: 16)


We believe that lecturer-practitioners have an ethical ‘duty of care’ to both identify the quality of different potential risks present in the teaching activity and a subsequent assessment of the probability and severity of risks. They can then design appropriate strategies for management and/or minimisation of risk, as well as an evaluation of the potential benefits of the learning or research opportunity. We hope that with the techniques and considerations outlined, that you are able to more fully engage a nurturing and inspiring, as well as safe, space for student risk-taking and innovation.



Cloonan, D (2008) ‘Observations when Counselling Trainee Artists’ in Journal of the Australia and New Zealand Student Services Association: Number 31, April, pp. 42-55

National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)/ Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee (AVCC) (2007) National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (Canberra, Australian Government)

Norton, Jonathan and Brett, Matthew (2011) ‘Healthy students, healthy institutions’ Discussion Paper, National Summit on Mental Health of Tertiary Students, The University of Melbourne



Dr Lycia Trouton (b. Belfast) is a Canadian-Australian citizen, currently at Queens’ University, Toronto, Canada. She has lectured in South America and in regional Australia, after working for a decade in North America mainly as a site-specific sculptor and instructor/teacher. Her scholarly research includes book chapters, refereed journals, conference presentations and artist monogram. She is also a radio and TV interviewer for specialist programming on the arts. One of her ongoing projects is an Irish Linen Memorial ( about the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, emblematic of her interest in ethics, justice and building sustainable, intercultural communities as global citizens. With Dr Seton, she has authored a book chapter entitled “Deconstructing The Taken-For-Grantedness Of Institutional Knowledge And Power In Arts Education: Restoring The Voice Of The Creative Student in a new publication on ethical educational research.


Dr Mark Seton (b. New Zealand) has lectured in performing and media arts theory and practice for actors, theatre-makers and filmmakers at various Australian universities and the Australian Film Television and Radio School. He is the recipient of the 2009 Gilbert Spottiswood Churchill Fellowship for his study tour of actor training healthcare practices in the UK. His special passions are the ethical and sustainable training of actors for stage and screen, and the broader promotion of ethical teaching and research practices in Higher Education creative and performing arts. He has been the Chair of the Health Promotion subcommittee of the Australian Society for Performing Arts Healthcare (ASPAH) and is currently the President of InterPlay Australia Incorporated.

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