It can be easy to think that mental health provision in universities is failing students and that little progress has been made, but in reality, universities around the world are beginning to understand that early intervention is the best tool in tackling mental health conditions in students. Universities are introducing innovative ways to help students identify and understand mental health symptoms and are improving access to services in ways that make students feel more comfortable.
While there are many more examples of universities from around the world that are pioneering mental health services, here is a small selection of countries where universities are working to improve mental health provision for students.
UK – University of Derby
According to the Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey 2017, the University of Derby is in the top 20 universities in the UK for student well-being.
The University of Derby takes a holistic approach to tackling mental health, incorporating well-being teaching into the curriculum and delivering workshops on improving psychological health. The university moulds the service to individual students as the needs of an engineering student will differ from those of a theatre student.
Gareth Hughes, the research lead for student well-being at the University of Derby, says that mental health and well-being services are proactive when it comes to identifying students with mental health issues.
He explains that the university will invite students with mental health conditions and learning disabilities to pre-entry events that allow them to come to the university early to settle in and make friends, so they don’t become overwhelmed with having to do this during the busyness of freshers’ week.
The university also has a psychological well-being service that aims to help students across a whole spectrum of concerns such as exam anxiety, public-speaking anxiety, writer’s block and many more problems.
Gareth says that Derby is constantly looking for ways to evolve the service to keep up to date.
South Africa – University of the Western Cape
At the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa, an online programme was piloted to tackle the number of students that avoid accessing counselling because they are reluctant to speak to a member of staff face to face.
Research conducted among the student body found that there was 110 per cent smartphone coverage with students (some students had two phones). Therefore the university decided to pilot a phone service to encourage students to access services, and to tackle those students who avoided face-to-face support.
In essence, the programme was a phone app and desktop computer program that students could use to message university staff about any mental health problems they were experiencing. The staff would then assist the students or pass on their concerns to healthcare professionals if they felt it was needed.
The main conditions that students were reporting were anxiety, academic issues, and relationship and adjustment problems.
The pilot was conducted with 729 students and the feedback was generally positive. Birgit Schreiber, the former director of student affairs at the university, said that “students felt that the service was helpful, enabled them to cross the shyness barrier, could test the waters with their counsellor and hide their shame and tears when online chatting and have some of their problems addressed in their preferred medium”.
India – Manipal University
"While there is growing awareness of mental health issues in India, there is less awareness of the issues of university students," says Nikhil Govind, associate professor and head of the centre for philosophy and humanities at Manipal University in Karnataka. Research has identified the prevalence of suicide rates in students in India. A 2012 Lancet report revealed that India has one of the world’s highest suicide rates for youth aged 15 to 29 and 2015 data from the National Crime Records Bureau found that every hour, one student commits suicide in India.
Nikhil attributes the lack of awareness to cultural reasons. Indian students may be less equipped to be fully responsible adults, such as living away from home and relying on parents for payment of fees. He believes this can also have consequences for their emotional maturity. Nikhil states that “teachers in most universities seem remote and functional, concentrate on academics, and are not trained in any serious way about holistic well-being. Mental healthcare is expensive (for government and private managements) in terms of time, skills and money, so almost nowhere in India is there a serious endeavour to mitigate this.”
At Manipal University, the stigma of mental health is being tackled through the establishment of a confidential student support centre in a separate building so students can come directly to the centre to ask for immediate help. According to the centre’s website, “modeled along the lines of counseling and wellness centres at the best universities in the world, the SSC at Manipal University is among very few such services in India”.
The centre employs qualified psychologists to advise students, something that doesn’t always happen at universities in India. “Often universities save on cost by making regular faculty do the extra work; or they hire casually. In India, as we know, a degree in itself means little – most therapists give complete platitudes about ‘getting over it’, ‘it’s a phase’, ‘don’t you want your parents to be proud of you?’, ‘buck up’ etc. Students need therapists with the right, non-moralistic and truly empathetic sensibility, and the universities have to make that extra effort,” concludes Nikhil.
Penn State University in Pennsylvania, US, is a supporter of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health which collects data from more than 400 college and counselling centres to help inform a nationwide database on student mental health. The CCMH is located at the counselling and psychological services at Penn State University.
The university itself has created a series of services that help students to manage their mental health. One such service is the De-Stress Zone, decked out with iPod stations that play a number of relaxation, stress reduction and mindfulness tracks.
There are also two biofeedback programmes available on a desktop computer that provide exercises that reduce heart rate variability, which can lead to a reduction in stress and an increase in positive emotions.
The university also provides sessions for students who have concerns about finances, sleep, stress and the emotional impacts of relationships and sex.
Australia – Monash University
Monash University in Australia provides training programmes to equip the student body with the tools to support their peers with mental health issues.
One of these courses is SafeTALK which is a half-day workshop to help people become more alert to someone exhibiting signs of suicidal thoughts or plans. The training teaches people how to notice and respond to situations where thoughts of suicide might be present, to provide practical help and to be able to act quickly to connect that person with someone trained in suicide intervention.
Research conducted earlier this year by Headspace and the National Union of Students in Australia found that 35 per cent of Australian students had experienced thoughts of suicide or self-harm.
Monash students are also encouraged to attend a two-day mental health first-aid training workshop. After completing the training course, students are able to support each other in the early stages of mental health concerns. This includes recognising the signs and symptoms of these problems and helping people to understand both where and the most effective ways to get help.
These courses are available to all students.