We have a crisis, which is growing each year, in student mental health in our universities. I am not blaming the universities, but things must now change quickly before more avoidable misery is spread, and more lives lost.
I have written periodically in the past about the mental health problems at universities, and was told that I was grossly exaggerating the problem. However, since last month I have been running the University of Buckingham and have seen first-hand what concerns students have.
There is excellent practice in some areas in some universities, but the sector overall needs to rise quickly to their example. Universities must start embracing the problem, and stop ignoring and even exacerbating it by failing to engage fully with best practice, and by permissive policies that turn a blind eye to alcohol abuse and other causes of distress.
Despite the best efforts of many across all universities, student mental health continues to be a growing problem and one that urgently needs to be tackled before even more misery is caused and more students take their own lives.
I am proposing a 10-point programme below for all students, and a further five more specifically for those encountering mental health problems. The former are more concerned with being proactive to reduce the risk of serious problems arising; the latter focus more on reactive responses once problems manifest.
Ten point proactive plan:
- Universities must take institutional responsibility for the pastoral care of their students. At present bodies, including Universities UK (UUK), stress that universities are “intellectual, not therapeutic communities”. This is an unhelpful divide. Universities need to start talking about “pastoral care” and to embrace the opportunities that doing so will offer for building better communities.
- Personal tutors. While all universities provide them, they are often poorly monitored and incompletely used. Tutors need to receive training in how to tutor, and to identify early signs of problems.
- All universities should provide buddy schemes and enhance opportunities for peer support. Student-led groups can do much, as they are doing at the best universities. Durham University encourages elder mentors and such schemes can be enormously helpful. Much more information needs to be given to excellent bodies working in this field, such as Student Minds, and the website Students Against Depression.
- Collegiate atmospheres can be encouraged in all universities, so students identify with smaller identifiable units where they can be known as individuals and where a sense of community can be fostered.
- The lad and "groupthink" culture needs to be tackled head on. Many students arrive at university with a set of expectations about their behaviour that bear no relation to compassionate or respectful living, towards themselves or others.
- Student-to-staff ratios need to be improved – they have declined very significantly in recent years. There are simply not enough staff available for students to relate to, and many regard their primary task as research, not students.
- Information on positive health and positive education needs to be much more prevalent – on diet, exercise, relationships, excess, relaxation, etc., to allow students to grow in autonomy and self-possession. Action for Happiness provides excellent advice on its website, including how to set up student-led groups to support well-being.
- Far better help needs to be given significantly to help students transition between school and university. The vast majority of young people have never boarded at school or lived in other institutions before. They will often now be living some way from home. Schools could play a much bigger role in educating their sixth-formers in university life, and could liaise much more fully with universities. Schools and universities need to liaise much more.
- All universities should provide core modules to first year students in resilience, emotional well-being and mental health literacy.
- Careers advice and an understanding of the workplace should permeate every year students are at university to avoid them living in a bubble with norms of behaviour that bear no relation to the rhythms of working life; Degree Plus, which is used by Queen’s University Belfast, is an excellent example. Students need access to the skills of the workplace, and better information on careers, to smooth their transition.
Five further reactive steps:
Specifically, there are a further five steps for students and adults who are more vulnerable.
- More counselling needs to be made available as a matter of the highest priority. Students should not be waiting long periods of time to see a counsellor.
- The mental health of all staff needs to be included. They need to be much better informed about their own mental health and how to look after it, as well as their role model and responsibility roles to students.
- The stigma of mental health problems needs to be dramatically improved so that those experiencing difficulties do not feel uncomfortable about admitting it to staff.
- Students need to be better informed about how to understand difficulties that they themselves might be experiencing, as well as identifying these problems in others.
- Collaboration with external agencies needs to be greatly improved. Every higher education institution needs to appoint a head of pastoral care/well-being who leads the whole community.
Sir Anthony Seldon is vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham and co-founder of Action for Children.
In response - Rosie Tressler, chief executive of Student Minds:
We’re really interested in the ideas put forward by Sir Anthony Seldon to tackle the challenges around supporting student mental health and promoting a positive landscape conducive to the well-being of all students. I hope that hearing a vice-chancellor from an institution highlighting the importance of these issues will encourage more institutions to consider their strategic commitment, as, alongside the work of so many fantastic staff on the ground, this could have a big impact.
At Student Minds, we’ve been working with other members of the Alliance for Student-Led Well-being to scope and consult students and staff on what a detailed framework would look like, and would encourage any individuals interested in continuing the important discussion that Sir Anthony has started to get in touch via our consultation.