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.

The impact of social media on the mental health of students

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Steve West recently gave this presentation to MPs and Peers

The use of social media is increasingly pervasive in the UK and across the globe, particularly in the lives of our students. At present, Facebook has the highest number of users – 32m in the UK, with 1bn people across the world using Facebook in a single day.

Clearly social media brings a number of benefits to its users – enabling connections to be maintained or new networks to be built that would not have otherwise been possible. Social media can also help boost young people’s self-confidence and social skills.

At UWE Bristol, like many other universities, we use social media to help support recruitment and transition to university – sharing information and enabling students to build connections with their peers before they arrive. It is also a great tool in facilitating communications, supporting teaching, and of course it provides a valuable means of maintaining alumni networks.

However, research and user experiences are exposing a highly negative side to social media – in particular the link between social media and challenges to mental health and well-being. With 18-19 year olds spending an average of 2.55 hours a day on social networking sites, this is clearly a major concern.

We already know that mental health is a very important challenge facing the health and education sectors, with one in four people experiencing a mental health problem in any one year. We also know that there are particular circumstances that students face that put them at increased risk in relation to mental health. This is something we have been striving to address at UWE Bristol, introducing modes of delivery for our well-being service that provide an improved outcome for users and also allow us to cope with the increased demand that we have seen across the sector.

There are a number of reasons for this increase in referrals and applications for well-being support, which has been in the region of 50% over the past 5 years. One potential factor we cannot ignore is the use of social media.

Indeed, there is a growing body of research exploring the links between social media and mental health covering a number of areas, including bullying, harassment, self-esteem, negative body image and normalising self-harm.

At UWE Bristol, researchers from our world-leading Centre for Appearance Research have carried out a number of studies in this area, focusing in particular on social comparison theory – where people compare themselves to others to know where they stand. One example, includes investigating the causal effect of Facebook on women’s mood and body image, compared to viewing a body-neutral site. The study found that viewing Facebook had a more negative impact on mood, and for those who had a pre-existing tendency to make more appearance comparisons, ‘spending time on Facebook led to a greater desire to change their face, hair and skin-related features’. Facebook provides a huge range of lifestyle and image social comparison opportunities, and it is different to other sources as the comparison is with direct peers. It is also important to note the significance of reports about the frequency of the ‘comments’ made on Facebook being appearance focused.

Given the huge popularity of Facebook, clearly more research is needed to understand the effect on appearance concerns and mental well-being. And as we increase our understanding of the effects, it is clear that the digital literacy of our students and their ability to manage their interactions with their peers through social media will be critical. Prevention is paramount.

At UWE Bristol the digital literacy of our students is a key part of our graduate attributes and our focus on nurturing ‘ready and able graduates’, which informs the design and delivery of our academic programmes. We are also drawing on our experience introducing high-profile preventative programmes, such as bystander intervention in relation to sexual harassment. And we have worked to embed an ethos of respect in our Welcome Weekend programme for new students. It is important that more continues to done by educators and policy makers to boost social media literacy, and beyond this, to increase awareness among parents that social media is yet another source of influence on perceptions of body image.

Clearly this is a societal issue that spreads far beyond universities and involves the whole education system. The launch of the Mental Health and Wellbeing Project at Universities UK last week was a great step forward, which I am very pleased to be leading on. This involves taking a whole university strategic approach to mental health and well-being, starting with a review of the sector, identifying best practice, and the potential development of tools to support future progress. The importance of working together to tackle the issues and support our young people to flourish couldn’t be clearer.

100% Student Satisfaction

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Fifteen UWE Bristol programmes have performed outstandingly in the National Student Survey 2015, achieving the maximum possible score. A further 29 have scored exceptionally high at above 90%.

Feedback from our students is hugely important to us and helps shape the real world learning opportunities that we provide. Student feedback, alongside working with employers and professional bodies, ensures that the design of our programmes, opportunities and ways of learning are truly engaging and really prepare our students to thrive in the global knowledge economy.

Having our students rate their experience so highly is an excellent achievement and a real credit to these programme teams. It reflects the energy, commitment and innovation that they have applied to make their programmes truly outstanding. Congratulations to all those involved. Those scoring the full 100% are:

  • Art and Visual Culture
  • Business and Human Resource Management
  • Marketing Communications
  • Architecture and Planning
  • Creative Product Design
  • Product Design Technology
  • Information Technology Management for Business
  • Civil and Environmental Engineering
  • Climate Change and Energy Management
  • Mathematics
  • Aerospace Engineering (Design)
  • Diagnostic Imaging
  • International Relations
  • Politics
  • Public and Environmental Health

It is fantastic that the best practice across these programmes has been recognised by our students.

Supporting Student Mental Wellbeing

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Supporting the mental wellbeing of students is a growing concern in higher education and among healthcare providers.

As Vice-Chancellor of one of the largest universities in the UK, with an increasingly diverse student population, and through my various leadership positions in the health sector – which has included chairing the Independent Reviews of Mental Health Related Homicides across the South West for the Strategic Health Authority – I am very familiar with the need for close integration between the health, social care, probation, education and university sectors.

We know that in the general population at least one in four people will experience a mental health problem in any one year and one in six adults have a mental health problem at any one time.

But beyond that, we also know that there are very particular circumstances that students face in a university environment, that for some, means they are more at risk. And this problem has been increasing in recent years. Reports in the sector suggest an increase in referrals and applications to well-being services of between 25 and 37% since last year. At UWE Bristol, this certainly matches the increase that we have been experiencing.

Why has it been increasing over recent years? Well this includes factors such as changes to the profile of the student population, with a more diverse make-up than it has ever had before. It also includes a reduction in financial support that can place an increasing pressure on students to seek part-time work, at the same time as an increased pressure to succeed. More generally, we have also seen higher rates of family breakdown and an economic recession that has hit hard on many young people.

The student population is also in some ways more vulnerable than other young people.

When they join university, they quickly have to adapt to new environments and new ways of learning.

There are also vulnerabilities beyond the individual. Disturbed behaviour by one young person (for example self-harm) can cause considerable distress and disruption to fellow students, particularly in halls of residence.

Universities clearly have legal, moral and practical reasons to provide support for students with mental health difficulties and we have a long history of providing student support, counselling and disability support.

Students are at a point in their life when their university experience is likely to hold the key to their future success. If they already have existing mental health difficulties, higher education could provide a new source of self-esteem and opportunities for engagement with peers and the wider society. Alternatively, underachievement or failure at this transitional stage in life can have long-term effects on self-esteem, and could affect the progress of someone’s future life.

Universities are about opportunities and it is important that all students are supported to succeed. However, this is at a time when the pressure on the public purse and public services is intense. How much can a university do to make up for this shortfall in the interests of its students? Clearly we need to be smart about this and take an integrated and effective approach.

We know there are important practical impediments to this, including restrictions on the transfer of confidential information between agencies. However, a number of models of collaborative working have been established across the country and we should look to and learn from these.

The UUK guidance ‘Student mental wellbeing in higher education: good practice guide’, launched last week and picked up by the Times Higher Education today, provides a great new resource. I was very pleased to give the key note address at this event, on what is a critical agenda – not just to individuals, but also to families and wider society.