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July 27, 2022

Prioritising wellbeing in higher education: strategies for improving students’ mental health

That increasing numbers of students are experiencing mental health problems isn’t news; it’s an escalating trend that was extensively documented even before the Covid-19 pandemic, as HE providers reported unprecedented demands for access to their health and welfare support services prior to the 2020 crisis.

 

And, although the rise can be attributed, in part, to positive factors – the de-stigmatisation of mental health issues, as well as the widening participation of access to HE, for example – it also signals the real and growing prevalence of mental health conditions in every age group.

 

Simply put, more people are encountering obstacles to good mental health. In fact, the proportion of all adults (16-64) with mental health conditions has been steadily rising over time, with symptoms of depression increasingly detected among younger age groups, too.

 

Higher risk of mental health issues for HE students

Some studies have found that university students are at particular risk of developing mental health problems – more so than is found in wider population studies.

 

Last summer, the UK government published findings from a survey into student mental health in the HE sector. The study, conducted in 2019 by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), Advance HE and Advisory Centre (CRAC), was commissioned by DfE to explore the main issues around student mental health and wellbeing, with focus on the prevalence of mental health difficulties and the provision of support by HE providers.

 

The group surveyed institutions’ individual approaches to supporting students’ wellbeing and mental health and explored the range of services available to students, as well as how HE providers assessed the value of their services and identified gaps in provision. The results make for interesting reading.

 

While just over half (52 percent) of HE institutions had a dedicated strategy for student mental health and/or wellbeing, more than a third (33 percent) had no strategy in place at the time of the survey. In the majority of cases (62 percent), the strategy was designed for students and staff alike. That said, almost all (93 percent) consulted with their students about approaches to supporting mental health and wellbeing, with an even higher number (96 percent) agreeing that mental health resources had increased over the past five years.

 

The study also shows that universities are taking the initiative by funding activities to promote good mental health. Provision falls into three broad categories:

  • Wellbeing services such as group sessions/workshops, self-help, peer support, mindfulness apps, alternative therapies, physical health, and fitness programmes.
  • Early intervention programmes for those with mental health needs, like staff/student training, attendance monitoring, targeting ‘at risk’ groups, suicide prevention.
  • Targeted services for students with specific mental health needs, including counselling, therapies (CBT), specialist trauma support.

 

Nevertheless, many providers accepted they were still struggling to meet the demand for support.

 

What more can HE providers do?

Identify

As most mental health professionals agree that early intervention is key, catching students experiencing mental health difficulties before they evolve into more serious conditions is important. As part of any mental health strategy, universities should roll-out training to help staff recognise the signs of deteriorating mental health and to provide guidance on reporting their concerns. Audiences should include academic, as well as frontline and auxiliary staff, personal tutors and service/support staff. It’s good practice to cascade training to others who come into regular contact with students – including cleaners, canteen, and library colleagues. Many mental health charities offer evidence-based training services specifically for colleges and universities.

 

Educate

Raising general awareness of mental health issues has a big part to play in tackling stigma. Encouraging an open culture where staff and students can engage in conversations about mental health is crucial – as is an approach to wellbeing that widely promotes strategies for achieving and maintaining good mental and physical health. All students will benefit from adopting preventative measures – like regular exercise, healthy eating, mindfulness, and meditation practices – as well as learning how to spot and address unhealthy behaviours and deal with adverse life events. Developing techniques for reducing stress and building resilience will not only help students cope better in the short term but will prove valuable tools for life after university.

 

Support

Universities must not only create a range of tailored support services but must ensure, too, that they are clearly signposted. Services may be provided by personal tutors, via the student community (peer support) or through existing professional services (accommodation, library etc), sports and social groups/societies. Specific services – such as counselling and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – whether conducted face-to-face or online, will need specialist input, often via collaboration with external agencies (charitable organisations such as the Samaritans and Mind often collaborate with universities to promote mental health and wellbeing). Whatever the delivery mechanism, the outcomes of interventions should be monitored, and impact data collected where possible in order to evaluate services and to better match provision to student need.

 

Committing to evidence-based practice

Monitoring and evaluating services are, in fact, key to targeting resources strategically. To deliver support that’s effective and offers good value for money, HE providers must first understand what works.

 

For valuable additional context, tapping into evidence-based insights from sector-specific groups will provide universities with access to multiple resources for course leaders and students alike.

 

  • Funded by UK Research and Innovation, the King’s College-led Student Mental Health Research Network (SMaRteN) invests in research in the HE sector to improve the understanding of student mental health.
  • The UK Healthy Universities network provides training, information advice and guidance for HE institutions to the support and manage students’ mental health.
  • Mental health charity Student Minds led the development of the University Mental Health Charter (2019) – a set of principles designed to provide a holistic, university-wide approach to mental health, incorporating well-resourced mental health services and interventions. The accompanying Charter Award Scheme aims to recognise and reward providers with exceptional approaches to mental health and that support ongoing improvement.

 

Rising to the challenge

With public awareness of mental health issues strengthening and access to resources improving, HE institutions have the opportunity to model a broader approach to positive mental wellbeing – one that includes not only strategies for tackling problems at point of crisis but that also promotes the academic community as a source of self-agency, resilience and independence.

 

According to the IES report, many HE institutions are also looking to develop services for students with specific mental health needs through further measures, including:

  • Increasing capacity through the recruitment of specialists, especially those able to provide mental health-related counselling and advice, psychological support such as CBT and specialist study skills support.
  • Working with external agencies to expand services or improve response speeds of their responses – taking on secondees from the NHS to triage and make referrals, for instance, to avoid students falling into crisis.
  • Building online platforms and developing apps to promote good physical and mental health via self-serve resources and online moderated spaces.

 

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the provision of student support services, although continuity is important for students with mental health difficulties who may be discouraged by navigating a complex system and are more likely to fall off the radar unless services have effective and consistent ways of sharing information; technology can play a key role in maintaining these communications.

 

Perhaps the most important aspect of any mental health strategy is to assure students that any difficulties they experience will be met with understanding and with a commitment to provide the services they need to help them continue with their studies and reach their full potential at every stage of their HE journey.

 

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