A 2019 Unite survey showed that only 53% of students with a mental health condition had declared it to their university. This means the actual number of students with a mental health condition is likely to be underestimated and their concerns are going unheard.
Universities have an important role to play in providing support for students and the sector have rightly made tackling poor student mental health a priority. They may well be living away from home for the first time and experiencing stress or isolation caused by the pandemic. What can you do to help when it comes to supporting students' mental health and wellbeing?
- Remove the stigma and engage with students
- Provide inclusive support for all
- Resources for higher education providers
Remove the stigma and engage with students
A stigma still remains around mental health and students may feel uncomfortable or worry about being discriminated against if they report a concern. Universities and colleges need to engage with their students to understand the particular needs they face across the whole range of mental health.
Universities and colleges should approach mental health as a strategic priority, implementing a whole institution approach that supports students and staff struggling with their mental health. This works towards creating a learning environment that promotes positive mental health and wellbeing.
Students and staff must be involved and consulted as part of this process, as well as accessible education signposted at every step. This helps to remove barriers and empowers individuals to make positive changes knowing they have the support to do so.
Perceptions of their university or college’s mental health services can also have an impact on whether a student seeks support - or even enrols in the first place. Students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning or other identities often choose to study at a university which they perceive to be safe.
We all need to work together to better understand the barriers students face and what steps we could take to support them in overcoming these.
Provide inclusive support for all
Onsite counselling and wellbeing support have all been features of campuses for decades, but 94% of higher education providers have reported an increase in demand for counselling services.
University counselling services are reporting longer waiting times and student newspapers frequently raise concerns about mental health on their campus. Many universities are moving towards a more automated and proactive system of identifying and prioritising students who need support.
Providers must be mindful that the student experience is different for everyone. With industry-leading reporting systems coming into play, there are some great ways to show you’re committed to giving students the safe space they need to speak up.
It’s crucial to continually highlight how you have services and resources which cater to everybody’s individual needs. Here are the stats to support that:
- Multiple studies show LGBT+ people, especially transgender and young people, are more likely to suffer from mental health conditions.
- Black full-time students who report a mental health condition have some of the lowest continuation and attainment rates. Only 77% continued into their second year.
- At a university and college level, a number report that international students are less likely to use campus counselling and wellbeing services than their British peers.
Concerns about the level of mental health conditions among students are long-standing. What is of emerging importance is how other factors, such as ethnicity and sexuality, impact outcomes and support for students, and how institutions might consider an intersectional approach.
In your role, you can do so much to break down barriers to reporting and improve the student experience. It’s not enough to raise awareness of mental illness, but universities and colleges need to be clear about the services they offer and should consider providing a broader range of support.
Resources for higher education providers
Commitment from senior leaders to mental health support is necessary to ensure this change is embedded. There are many resources on student mental health available to universities and colleges, and work in this area continues:
- Universities UK’s refreshed Stepchange: mentally healthy universities framework includes resources for institution-wide approaches to mental ill-health prevention. It features a self-assessment tool to encourage universities to plan and implement a united approach.
- University Mental Health Advisers Network (UMHAN) is a network representing advisers who support students experiencing difficulties.
- Jisc is delving deeper into how best they can support the higher education sector. It focuses on the responsible, appropriate and effective use of student analytics to inform decisions about student wellbeing including mental health.
Raising awareness is just the start, but it must be accompanied by easily accessible support systems to help students and staff. Having well-advertised and robust services can lead to higher disclosure rates and better continuation rates. What support are you providing?