Today is University Mental Health Day, a national campaign to promote mental health in higher education (HE). Run jointly by Student Minds and the University Mental Health Advisers’ Network (UMHAN). This year’s theme is Community, to emphasise the fact that everyone has a pivotal part to play in creating a mentally healthy work and study place.
During my 15 years working in, with and alongside HEIs I have seen positive shifts towards mental health and the way mental-ill health is supported. Student services are increasingly more holistic and person-centered, with practitioners receiving recognition for the work they do. The Mental Health Rankings quantify resources and satisfaction levels of 47 institutions to assess their ability to care for students with mental health issues. This drives standards in the right direction. Student Unions run fantastic campaigns to highlight signs of mental-ill health, reduce exam stress and champion policy changes to support recovery of mental illness. I have trained staff across all job areas and seen how they engage with Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training. As well as the increased appetite for bespoke courses for managers and leaders.
On the flip side, I have also witnessed staff burn out, significant over working coupled with a lack of resources. The managers who bully through micro-management and seemingly get away with it. Signs of stress that are ignored, which then develop into chronic depression. I have heard numerous stories of tutors being phoned in the middle of the night by students who have self-harmed with no-one to talk to. The number of students who complete suicide is also on the increase, devastating families, friendship groups and their academic communities.
University is a time of transition for all students young and mature alike. Many students have caring responsibilities and will not have the “typical” student life style that is often envisaged. 75% of all mental-ill health develops by the time someone has reached their mid-20s. In England alone 19% of 16-24 year olds will experience a diagnosed mental health condition. The current #USSstrikes are about pensions, but there has also been a build up of years of stress, pressure and unrealistic expectations on all staff, professional services and academics alike. Tweets about poor mental health in academia have been a popular topic in the strike discussions. Last Spring The Guardian ran a series about mental-ill health and illness in academia. Stating it is still very much a taboo subject and the associated stigma ever-present. Staff can sometimes be their own worst enemies by not talking about how they actually feel.
In order to move forward there does need to be a real culture shift. It is imperative to fix the system and not the people. Staff and students need appropriate well resourced ongoing support. I am, obviously an advocate of training, but training is one part of the puzzle. Culture change starts from the top, includes everyone and must be embedded into staff and curriculum development. So here are my seven top tips for building a mental healthy HE community:
- Leading by example from the top. Senior leaders should be mental health champions and start the discussions.
- Create safe environments and empower staff and students to share their lived experience of mental-ill health and recovery.
- Mental well-being and health is everyone’s responsibility so encourage open conversations at all levels.
- Policies and procedures should be written in plain English, inclusive with supportive (not punitive) language.
- Resource student mental health advisers and support services, this ensures help is available from the start if and when students need it. It also reduces crisis situations.
- Be part of Student Minds Look After Your Mate Train the Trainer Programme which empowers students to support friends experiencing mental health difficulties.
- Promote your Employee Assistance Programme to staff continuously and evaluate the effectiveness of the service received.
- Be mindful and aware of specific cultural services that students and staff from diverse backgrounds may want to access.
- Don’t be afraid to talk about suicide. Provide specific suicide awareness training such as ASIST or the Samaritans course on Managing Suicidal Conversations. Promote helplines to destigmatise the topic and enable people to ask for help.