UK academics ‘ill-prepared to support student mental health’

Vast majority of scholars say their university has not adequately prepared them for supporting students with mental health issues

August 18, 2020
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Less than a third of UK academics who responded to a survey felt prepared for supporting students with mental health problems, with the majority of scholars having received no training in the area, according to a study.

A survey of 130 academics across the UK found that 96 per cent of respondents had encountered mental health problems among their students, but just 31 per cent said their institution had adequately prepared them for working with and supporting such students.

More than half (56 per cent) of respondents said they had not received training in working with students with mental health problems. Of those, 56 per cent said they would attend training if it was offered and a further 38 per cent said they would maybe attend.

The academics surveyed also disagreed that they had sufficient time to support students with mental health problems and said they had been supporting such students when they should have been doing other work-related activities. The majority of respondents said they had felt distressed during or after contact with a student believed to have mental health problems.

Interviews with 11 academics also highlighted that there was little agreement or guidance on what an academic’s role should be in supporting students with mental health problems. While scholars’ lack of training indicated that concerns about a student’s mental health should be referred to a specialist, it is often academic staff who students will turn to for initial and ongoing support, according to the study.

The paper, published in Higher Education Research & Development, adds that the lower number of “non-traditional” students at Russell Group and other pre-1992 institutions did not correlate with a lower incidence of mental health problems among their students.

Sara Spear, head of the School of Management at Anglia Ruskin University and co-author of the study, said it was “surprising that so many academic staff have not had any training in mental health when there is increasing concern within universities about student mental health problems”.

She recommended that all academic staff should have compulsory basic training in mental health to “make them more confident about their role in identifying and supporting students with mental health problems, and enable them to provide consistent and appropriate support to students”.

“This will be a vital part of developing a university culture that nurtures the mental well-being of both staff and students,” she added.

The paper adds that universities should also ensure that there is access available to mental health support services for academics, given the impact that supporting students can have on scholars’ own health.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (5)

There is not just an issue with students, there is a significant issue with mental health issues of staff being ignored. Having worked in two Universities I found that H&S was focussed on not tripping over trailing power cables in offices, or picking up a ream of paper safely, whilst a colleague in the next office who was close to a breakdown was ignored. The atitude of senior management was that the individual was being asked to do no more than any of his colleagues and so should be able to cope. However, they missed the fact that he was not able to cope - which was the elephant in the room. I willingly chose to advise students unofficially who seemed to have mental health issues, as I have had to deal with individuals in my private life with issues and I feel I can recognise some symptoms. However, I felt very uncomfortable as such students should be identified and immediately refered to mental health professionals. It is not the job of academics to provide counselling in such an important area and the wrong advice can be catastrophic. Academics should be trained to recognise symptoms so referrals can be made in good time.
I agree, too many times staff are ignored, with support services for students but none for staff in many cases, not uncommon as Universities have transitioned away from 'personnel' departments which had some humanity, to (in)Human Resources departments which 'see' staff simply as a resource to be used, abused then discarded when no longer functional. The support for many students often falls on the non-academic staffs shoulders as well, with admin staff in some areas and technicians in others https://www.technicians.org.uk/assets/technician-commitment/pdfs/report-technicians-student-well-being.pdf WHEN the HSE start prosecuting not just issuing improvement notices we might see an improvement, but that requires reporting the issue to the HSE, something in the current 'keep your head down and you 'll keep your job' situation most won't be prepared to do...
Academics already have an excessive workload - that is what university student support services are for.
I agree. In any case, even with compulsory training, we would be part time amateurs trying to do something that requires proper full time training and aptitude. We are primarily teachers of our subject areas and, depending on institution, also expected to be leading researchers. Any effective training would take up a lot of time and overload many.
I agree that both students and staff need support. However, I think there is a growing societal culture (from media and other sources) of seeing distress as 'mental health problems' that need referral to specialist services. As for counselling and psychotherapy, there are not enough counsellors and therapists to see every person who could benefit. We have all been suffering during the pandemic, and some more than others due to where we started from, for example with less secure employment (which includes the families of many of our students). Students can no longer as easily find part-time work. For many, their studies have been disrupted through no fault of their own during recent months, potentially piling on completely understandable anxiety about their futures. Perhaps we need systemic solutions, including practical ones, to reduce distress on a wider scale. If we think 'He has depression' or 'She has anxiety', then we are less likely to see the real and tough circumstances that are causing their understandable distress. Despite messages to the contrary, anxiety and depression are not diseases like diabetes. They are understandable human reactions to what is happening. Of course, everyone's situation is slightly different, but there is common ground and that might be amenable to wider-level action by universities, as well as lobbying government for support where it will be likely to make the most short and longer-term difference. We cannot have a situation where we feel in competition for meagre resources and feel that we are having yet another burden pushed onto us. Often, in this kind of climate, we can lose our ability to see the power of small actions of support and encouragement. If we are immediately thinking 'mental health problems' it can switch off our ability for ordinary empathy. Of course, there are many students who will benefit from counselling, welfare and financial advice, and psychotherapy; but many more will surprise us with their resourcefulness once they know we are on their side. It is not necessarily about advice-giving. It might be as simple as saying, 'I hear you.' Many students might not even want advice from us. A kind word of encouragement can go a long, long way. I am sure most staff would do that, but I worry about this growing talk of 'mental health problems', which has the potential to alienate us from the power of our own ordinary empathy and kindness.

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