Supporting students’ mental health is a team effort

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Hundreds of thousands of young people start new chapters in their lives when they arrive at university this week.

This is an important time of great change for them, with most leaving home, family, friends and social networks behind to come to university. Universities have a crucial role in making the time they spend with us fulfilling and rewarding.

Given the numbers of students who come to university, it should not be surprising to anyone that demand for support for mental health conditions is increasing.

This is generating increased public attention and is the backdrop against which Universities Minister Sam Gyimah has challenged the sector to do more to address the issue. The launch of a mental health charter to improve standards of support is part of the government’s response to this.

This is welcome, because it’s an issue that universities need to respond to. But it is also not something that universities or any part of the system that has contact with students can address alone.

Supporting students

Looking at what’s happening at universities vividly illustrates the extent of the activity taking place across the country.  More than 200 initiatives are on offer at UWE Bristol alone. This ranges from providing information to students when they first arrive, to creating places for them to access support and shaping a supportive culture that gives them the confidence to raise issues with others. We are also investing in new ways to use data to better understand how students engage in life on campus.

One of the most pressing issues this work has highlighted is the need to bring organisations together to provide a network of support for undergraduates.  In many cases, when students leave home they will also be leaving therapeutic support networks that they are used to – from young people’s mental health services to a new GP.

This places universities like ours in a position of providing support and direction to students, often without a full understanding of their history. It’s a major challenge, and we need to work with the NHS and partners to bridge these gaps.

Listening to students

In the face of this complexity, it is inspiring to hear the views of students themselves, who are best able to convey an understanding of what is needed. Those who have joined discussions with us support the improvements we are making and have been clear about the issues they face.

They have ambitions, but are disproportionately affected by the cost of housing, the jobs market, the environment and our future in Europe. Many are understandably unhappy at being termed ‘snowflakes’ when they speak about their concerns.

Given these changing pressures, it is clear that the way we support their mental health and wellbeing must adapt change too and that is what many universities are looking to deliver.

As we welcome thousands of new students leaving home for the first time, in scenes that will be replicated across the country, we appreciate that their mental health will be seen as everyone’s responsibility.

Tackling an issue as complex will not be achieved by a single measure or statement. It must be seen a team effort.  If we’re able to work together and listen to students, we stand a better chance of success.

This blog first appeared on the Huffington Post website on 21 September 2018.

How universities can support student mental health and wellbeing

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Mental health and wellbeing has shot to prominence recently as factors combine to place it on the national agenda.

Organisations like the Huffington Post have brilliantly campaigned to improve understanding around the issue. The Prime Minister has called for barriers to employment for people with mental ill health to be removed. And the issue of male suicide became a national talking point following the focus it received on a popular TV programme.

Whilst this is welcome in raising awareness and helping to change the debate, it’s worth recognising that this attention is not happening in a vacuum. That it’s happening at all is a reflection of what millions of readers, viewers and voters experience in their every-day lives.

Research suggests that around one in four people report a mental health problem each year. With more than 2m students attending university each year, institutions like my own at UWE Bristol are at the forefront of efforts to address this issue.

Recent studies reveal there has been a fivefold increase in the number of students disclosing mental health problems over the last 10 years. This is consistent with our university’s experience over that period of time.

The reasons for this increase are multi-layered and – to those who are affected – deeply personal and complex. Changing attitudes towards mental health, financial pressures, a tough jobs market and the impact of social media are factors that previous generations did not have to contend with in the same way when they went to university.

Whatever people’s views on this issue may be – and there are many – mental health and wellbeing can’t be ignored any more.

Applying a ‘big’ solution or headline-grabbing initiative is an understandable response – particularly in an environment which has become fixated on responses to ‘problems’, rather than how to prevent them from happening in the first place. I strongly believe that more needs to be done to look at the day-to-day aspects of university life, which could have a bigger impact on more people’s lives over time.

This is why I am determined to put the mental health and wellbeing of our students and staff at the heart of everything our university does. The measures we are looking at are shaped by a national discussion with the Government and bodies like Universities UK, Students’ Unions and the charity Student Minds. They range from new facilities to relax and seek support and advice, to how we structure our curriculums and use of technology and data to understand our students’ experience with us.

At the heart of this is a desire to break down the barriers to discussing mental health and encourage everyone to understand that it’s ok to admit when you’re not ‘ok’. By making mental health part of everyday language, we can create a culture that is more supportive and enables students to be successful.

Universities are not alone in facing this challenge and our response can only be successful by working with other organisations who deal with this every day. Recently, I spoke alongside Universities UK about how we are finding new ways in Bristol to work with education providers, the NHS, voluntary organisations and employers to support students when they need it, in ways that work for them.

This touches on an important pieces of feedback I’ve heard from families whose children have been affected by mental ill health as students. Each story highlights to me that more needs to be done to help people in times of stress and difficulty.

At the same time, we must shift our focus from just supporting people when they hit difficulty to providing measures that prevents this from happening in the first place. This means teaching people resilience and giving them the emotional and physical tools they need to look after their mental health. It requires a more holistic and understanding approach, which runs through all facets of what we do.

It may not be what script and speech writers are looking for, but our responsibility to students and their families demands new and different approaches are found. We all have a role to play in this.

Working with universities and everyone who works and studies here, I am determined that we find ways to do that.

A version of this blog post first appeared on Bristol 247 on 18 May.

Mental Wealth First

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This week I am announcing ‘Mental Wealth First’: UWE Bristol’s Commitment to put Mental Health and Wellbeing first, for both students and staff. This means adopting the whole university approach of the Universities UK Step Change Framework to ensure we have the right support, systems, training and partnerships in place for optimum mental health and wellbeing. Wellbeing is the key addition here, as we want to create a healthy, productive environment where everyone has what they need to thrive and grow.

What triggered this work was firstly a realisation that, as universities, we have a group of individuals, 18-24 year olds who are going through massive transitions –from home to university and then onto employment. A cohort vulnerable to a range of mental ill-health issues, from anxiety and depression to loneliness, stress about exams, peer pressure or identity issues. The second thing is that data shows that all of us have a continuum of mental health where one in four will experience mental ill-health at some point during our lives.

We are already seeing increasing demands on the NHS in this area. And the demands within universities will continue to increase with people accessing services when they are in crisis with mental ill-health if we don’t rethink our approach. In fact, universities have been reporting a threefold increase in the demand for counselling services since 2007.

Universities should be proud of the work they are already doing to support young people with their mental health and wellbeing needs.

At UWE Bristol, we offer a range of services to support students in ways that suit them individually. For example, the Wellbeing service offers an initial 90 minute Therapeutic Consultation for students seeking support, as well as a daily drop-in service. We have also this term introduced an online platform called Kooth Student, which provides online out of hours access to professional online counsellors, live moderated forums and self-help materials and allows students to seek help anonymously.

We also focus on the transition periods where we know anxiety is often at its greatest for students, such as joining the university, and low times like returning after Christmas and assessment times. Students are encouraged and facilitated to make friends, look after each other, get involved, made aware of the support available and, in the case of our Feelgood February, persuaded to be active.

Throughout the student journey, the University, partnering with the Student Union has run a number of workshops for staff and students. The main aim of the student workshops has been to empower students, improving their emotional resilience, self-belief and esteem and confidence. From the New Year, the SU will operate a new service called Nightline, a phone-based student- to-student support service.

However, we know there is more to be done to address this growing issue. We are one of three universities nationally (alongside Cardiff and York) that will be piloting the Universities UK Step Change Framework. This means auditing our current activity across the university, including our leadership, the data we use, what we provide for staff, our initiatives around prevention and early intervention, how we arrange support particularly around key transition periods and our partnerships.

We will be consulting with staff, students and partners, including Universities UK and leading student mental health charity, Students Minds UK, to identify what works, where there are gaps and what people need in the future. We will then develop our Strategy and five-year Action Plan to begin to implement this new whole university approach.

Our work will be used to help shape the future approach to mental health and wellbeing in universities across the country.

This is not a short term fix but a long term cultural change that we believe will help us create the best environment for people to thrive, getting the most out of their time at university and preparing them for later life.

Find out more about our Mental Wealth First commitment here:

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