Strong leadership is needed to stop student mental health crisis

The University of Buckingham’s vice-chancellor set out his blueprint for how universities should support students

September 21, 2017
Mental health, brainstorming

What can be more important for a vice-chancellor than looking after students and staff? 

However, many leading universities – with multiple pressures preoccupying them – only give student well-being scant regard.

Some vice-chancellors and their institutions, however, are leading strongly on this agenda. Written by myself and my head of psychology, Alan Martin, “The positive and mindful university”, published by the Higher Education Policy Institute on 21 September, seeks to encourage other universities to make the well-being of their students and staff a top priority.

Let us be clear. Improvements in the mental health of our students and staff will only come if it is not piecemeal, but if it is directed with clarity, passion and personal drive from the very top.

Each university should adopt a bespoke model tailored to each individual institution: the booklet provides some ideas, but each university is different and must find its own way.

No one pretends that this task will be easy, but with decisive leadership, resistance can be overcome, because staff will see that the leaders have well-being as a core priority and not as an option.

We are calling on all vice-chancellors to throw their weight behind “positive psychology as discussed in this booklet, which is concerned with building the capacity of our students and staff to manage their lives more successfully, rather than just focusing, as universities do at the moment, on reactions to problems once they manifest. 

All vice-chancellors have a responsibility to help their students, above all those aged under 25, to develop a strong sense of personal responsibility, not so as to infantilise them, but to help them to become fully independent. 

We want vice-chancellors to provide strong leadership in the following 10 areas:

1. Leadership: leading on mental health is vital if the culture of universities is to change. When all stakeholders see it matters as much to the leadership as research or teaching, an institution will change. A positive university mental health programme, grounded on strong evidence, needs to be at the heart of all strategic reviews and thinking.

2. Transitions to university: vice-chancellors need to throw their weight behind gaining far more information about incoming students who have experienced emotional and mental difficulties, so that we can look after them better. Much more could be done to look after those who have already experienced difficulties before they join.

3. Initial induction of students: a serious and comprehensive programme should be put in place in all universities where not already in existence, so that students are informed about how to look after themselves better when they are living away from home, how they can take more responsibility for their own decisions in life, and about the dangers they could put themselves in if they follow certain courses of action.

4. Drinking culture and illegal drugs: we need to make it abundantly clear that excessive and binge drinking is not to be tolerated on any university property and that we strongly disapprove of episodes of excessive drinking outside. On illegal drugs, we need to help eradicate the scourge of ubiquitous drug-taking at our universities by speaking out strongly against it at each and every opportunity and having a zero tolerance policy towards drug-taking.

5. Active tutoring: good tutoring needs to be given a much higher profile and reward in our universities. Every student deserves to have an engaged and empathetic tutor who takes a personal interest not only in their academic development, but in their personal progress also.

6. A culture of respectful sexual relations: a strong lead is needed here to help ensure that strong personalities do not prevail against those who feel pressured into unwanted sexual relations.

7. Positive education: classes in positive psychology that teach students how to take responsibility for their own levels of happiness should be available at all universities, and information about the key strategies of positive psychology, including mindfulness, should be disseminated widely.

8. Volunteering: we should all be taking a strong lead on encouraging volunteering among students and staff, and should be actively volunteering ourselves where we do not already do so, so we are leading by example.

9. Professional support: we should be ensuring that there are sufficient mental health clinicians and support workers available to respond to the needs of students as and when they arise, and help should be given to those who suffer from the illness of addiction, whether it be to alcohol, drugs, sex, or anything else. 

10. Life and work skills: as anxiety over future employment is so widespread a cause of stress among students, even greater efforts are needed to ensure that students are given effective support in work skills, including problem-solving, teamwork, and meeting deadlines. 

To those who think that this is all an irrelevance, we would respond that there is a self-interest at play. The better we support student well-being, the evidence suggests that the more we will see degree results improve, mental health problems decline, staff retention and morale rise, student dropouts fall, and the quality of research improve.

Anthony Seldon is vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham.

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