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Students can have their say on mental health support at UK universities

A new network is placing student voices at the centre of developing good mental health care in universities in the UK

    Michael Priestley


    Marta Ortega Vega

    December 20 2019
    Mental health


    Marta Ortega Vega, psychology, King’s College London

    Coming to university, I had an idealistic expectation. I had done everything “right” to prepare for this new adventure so surely nothing could go wrong? When I found myself starting to struggle, I felt confused about where things had started to go downhill. Why did I feel so isolated in London, when my friends in universities in the north of England were thriving? As a psychology student, what was stopping me from talking to someone about my struggles or seeking help? If things were fine before, what had changed that was causing me to struggle?

    No one seemed to have an answer for these questions. So, I turned to other students. Through volunteering for my university’s peer support group and having conversations with many other students, I no longer felt alone in my struggles.

    Surprisingly, the issue didn’t seem to be a lack of support services, but rather a lack of services that effectively focused on the real challenges that students were experiencing. From those conversations, there was one key question that really stuck in my mind – when designing all these services, had anyone stopped to ask students what they wanted?

    Michael Priestley, education, Durham University

    As an education student, I kept encountering the same questions: how do education policies and practices impact on student mental health and well-being? Seeing and experiencing so much stress and anxiety throughout university, I questioned whether and how an education environment characterised by competitive assessment and student debt might be linked to mental ill health among students. And could changes to curriculum, assessment, and teaching and learning improve both student education and mental health?

    I started to do some research and, frustrated that there seemed to be little engagement with these questions, I began a PhD to explore them further.

    It struck me as strange that the issues, questions, and concerns that were most relevant and important to my own and others’ everyday experience as students did not seem to be reflected in research. After all, without research attuned to the student experience, how can we start to understand how best to make changes to improve the state of student mental health? It is for exactly these reasons that SMaRteN’s Key Questions project is so important and why students should get involved.

    Oxford university, postnatal depression and me

    What is SMaRteN?

    SMaRteN is a national research network funded by UK Research and Innovation focusing on student mental health in higher education. They aim to improve the understanding of student mental health, ensuring that the student voice is kept at the core of all of their projects.

    What is Key Questions and why is it important?

    With the rising concerns about student mental health at university, SMaRteN is leading the Key Questions project to call for more research to better understand mental health among students. Students can submit their questions to the Key Questions survey, to ensure that their voice, their experience, and their needs are included in the research that will shape the changes to student mental healthcare.

    How often are we, as students, consulted or involved in research on student mental health? Not just as participants, but actively involved as equal experts by experience which can strategically direct future research priorities? And how often, or how well, are existing student mental health research findings communicated to us? How then do we know that this research is most relevant to the mental health related issues or questions that we experience as students in our everyday lives?

    As part of this project, it is crucial to have as many student voices heard as possible. After all, students are a diverse group; we have different experiences and encounter different challenges that may impact on our mental health and support needs. It is imperative therefore that the future research priorities represent the experiences of the entire student population, including commonly under-represented groups in the student mental health conversation, such as BAME, LQBTQ, mature, and international student communities. So, will you help?

    How does it work?

    Taking part is easy – all you have to do is go to the Key Questions webpage and open the online survey. You will be asked some demographic questions and will then be prompted to add your own key questions that you’d like to see in the future of student mental health research. The SMaRteN team will group the questions into common themes, review the existing research literature, and produce a research priorities report for the sector to encourage future research to focus on the questions important to students.

    This is our chance, as students, to raise those issues and ask those unanswered questions that we have about student mental health and get an answer. This is our chance to have our voices heard, and meaningfully shape the work in the sector going forwards. This is our chance to change the state of student mental health by informing future research and evidence-based policy. This is our chance: let’s take it.

    Read more: Universities must adopt a proactive approach to mental health



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