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.

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