Improving Student Mental Health in Universities

University Mental Health Day

Today is University Mental Health Day, a national campaign to promote student mental health in higher education (HE). Run jointly by Student Minds and the University Mental Health Advisers’ Network (UMHAN). This year’s theme is the power of using your voice. Recognising we all have mental health, stories to share and how we can all use our voices to shape the future of student mental health.

My experience of Higher Education

During my 16 years of working in, with and alongside in higher education instituitions I have seen positive shifts in talking about mental health. As well as 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 from 2017 quantify resources and satisfaction levels of 47 institutions. The rankings assess their ability to care for students with mental health issues. This drives standards in the right direction. As a Council Member of the University of Leeds, the topic is high on the agenda when it comes to student experience.

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.

Statistics on mental-ill health and students

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.
  • In 2015/16, over 15,000 first-year students in UK universities reported a mental health problem, compared to c. 3,000 in 2006
  • 94% of higher education institutions reporting an increase in demand for their counselling services

I know numerous tutors who receive phone calls in the middle of the night from students who have self-harmed with no-one to talk to. The increase in suicides devastates families, friendship groups and their academic communities.

Moving forward

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.

Universities can demonstrate their expertise through experience. Students are best placed to understand the challenges that university presents. They are able to influence the change. The student experience is central to the solution in relation to improving mental health at UK universities. You can see the power that students and staff using their voices have had here.

Using your voice

We have all seen the media and press report about “generation snowflake”. In fact, I had to challenge this in a session led by mental wellbeing practitioners. The assumptions that young people “can’t possibly cope”. The narrative is most unhelpful. So, here are my top tips for using your voice to improve student mental health:

  • 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. It gives people a voice to talk about their mental health to a someone who is trained and understands, who can in turn refert them.
  • 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.

I wish you all a very happy and healthy #UniMentalHealthDay, today and everyday. As always, do let me know what you are doing in your HEI by commenting below, tweeting me @diversemindsuk or messaging me on Facebook.

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