Our modern world can be a tough place to navigate. Higher Education students face a real mix of challenges. At an often tender age, transitioning into HE and leaving familiar things behind, they have to face the extra pressure of higher fees, a challenging job market and an uncertain economy. Add to this the rise of the internet and social media; it’s small wonder that one in four students experience mental health problems.
We are now encouraged to manage our mental health in the same way we manage our physical wellbeing. Despite the recent surge in awareness and action, there is still much to be done to destigmatise, normalise dialogue and effectively diagnose and treat mental health problems. Working in higher education, where contact with young people is a daily occurrence, places academic and support staff alike into a unique position. Here is an opportunity to communicate with students who may experience loneliness and isolation. Who may be vulnerable? What role can university staff play in promoting a positive and pragmatic attitude to mental health? What are the challenges, and how can we work best together?
An inclusive community
The guidance is clear – a whole university approach is needed. The first step towards this is to create a ‘learning community’. Whilst it is true that universities already foster a community within its students, it is also true that some students are overlooked. In what other ways can these students be included? Connection is the bottom line – students must feel they are part of the fabric of the university and that they are connected in a meaningful way. Faculties can look at how different groups of students engage with the curriculum, staff, and other students. How can this be measured and monitored? Consider the variety of learning communities within your organisation, faculty or school. How are they promoted and accessed? Review the methods used for obtaining student feedback.
Most are aware of the mental health services that exist within the university support offer. How can this be enhanced? Consider the types of exercises that can be embedded within teaching and learning.
No matter what your role is, it’s likely that you will be speaking to students at some point. How do you talk, and listen? Are you task and subject-focused? Do you enable a dialogue that is open-ended? As a person who teaches, guides, informs and advises students, think about how often you self-reflect. Are you mindful of your own style?
This is particularly relevant to the position of personal tutor. Specific training for staff members who work in this (and related roles) will help to develop existing expertise.
Consider how you manage your own wellbeing in the workplace – think about who you can speak to, and if you had a problem, who might you approach, and what you would want to happen.
There is a wealth of information available regarding mental health awareness. What information can the university counselling service give you? What is the organisational guidance? Consider other staff member’s opinions and actions. What experiences have they had? Start conversations. What can students tell you? Know the best way to respond. Know the signs; know where to signpost to. Follow up.
A joined-up approach between academic and support staff, the student’s union and those working in student accommodation could benefit and inform the current provision. Opportunities for staff in these areas to meet and talk in a meaningful way should be commonplace. Are there further opportunities for partnership working beyond your organisation?
Much of this is about speaking out. Whilst your role may not be to rewrite policy or working practices, by pushing forward and seeking change you could further shift the focus onto mental health at your institution. As a busy university staff member it may seem daunting, adding to your already sizeable workload. If universities can support their staff to embed these critical changes, we will all benefit, not least those at the heart of the institution – the students.
For more detailed information on strategy and good practice in this area, have a read through the Universities UK Step Change policy.