Universities aren’t responsible for mental health but they are perfectly positioned to help

A blanket response to student mental health won’t work, says Richard Gascoigne, who argues for using technology to gain a comprehensive understanding of individuals’ needs

November 2, 2019
Mental health
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It’s no secret that the UK is in the midst of a mental health crisis. One in four people in the UK experience a mental health problem each year and in England one in six people experience a common mental health problem like anxiety or depression in any given week; in 2017, the NHS reported that one-third of all sickness notes issued by GPs were mental health related.

What’s increasingly becoming a concern is how this has manifested among young people, specifically university students. Full-time university students with a declared mental health condition are more likely to drop out and less likely to achieve a first or 2:1 degree. Devastatingly, 95 university student suicides were recorded in 2017 in England and Wales.

Universities are under increasing pressure to address this problem by offering more counselling services. But mental health isn’t just a university issue, it’s a societal one. Despite their best efforts, universities like many other facets of society have limited resources, and most only have a handful of people available who are qualified to make an assessment about a person’s mental health. Instead of aiming for a blanket approach by providing every student they can with some level of support, UK universities need a more focused way of being able to help those in need.

Certainly, steps are being taken to combat student mental health. The Office for Students announced a £14.5 million programme earlier this year with the aim of sparking a step change in student support across the country. However, a lot of efforts are proving to be misguided or ineffective.

One university faced backlash last year for going beyond a reasonable expectation of privacy by collecting data from students’ social media profiles to spot suicide warning signs.

Others are still relying on demographic profiling, seeking to help a “type” of person, rather than considering students as individuals.  

Universities instead need a strategy modelled on a triage system to identify early on the student who is stressed about an upcoming exam, the one who is anxious, and the one who is having dark thoughts, so that they can be directed to the appropriate help before they become a crisis.

The approach many universities have taken has been to implement or adapt processes internally to gain visibility of real-time student engagement through learning analytics. Beyond simply quantifying activities like lecture attendance, these systems give a view of data that shows how students’ behaviours are matched against positive outcomes, their peers and more importantly themselves. This way subtle changes in behaviour could be an early alert to problems, whether academic or otherwise, providing a more complete picture of a student’s experience in order to carefully determine when and where to intervene.

The University of the West of England, Bristol, for example, implemented this in support of its whole university approach to mental health. The university found that it not only helped focus efforts, but unearthed students that wouldn’t previously have been identified. Nottingham Trent University, which had been assessing student behavioural patterns for a number of years for things like attrition, also began using this approach to support student well-being.

In both instances students are identified as having either low, partial, good or high engagement. This means that a tutor can identify and help students with their well-being in a similar way to how they advise on coursework. They can make a note to ask a partially engaged student how things are going in their next scheduled meeting, or they can set up a catch up with a low-engaged student that week. If a student shows no engagement in two weeks, their tutor is prompted automatically via email to check in with them.

One of the most important parts of this approach is the fact that students have full visibility of the same data, which is an integral part of growing trust between the student and university when it comes to an issue like mental health.

Of course, universities aren’t qualified to make diagnoses about their students, but they have a significant role in being a route to seeking help at what is arguably one of the most vulnerable times of a young person’s life. By going beyond a bird’s-eye view of students, to a comprehensive understanding of where each student needs help with their mental welfare as well as academic performance, universities can direct every single person to unique help with more accuracy and, potentially, less resources.

Richard Gascoigne is CEO of Solutionpath.

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