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Is Mental Health Your Uni’s Responsibility?

Is Mental Health Your Uni’s Responsibility? main image

With one in four students experiencing mental health problems while at university, and with rising numbers of reported student suicides, it is now more important than ever to talk about students’ mental health at university. We need to question and improve current practices, in order to meet the growing demand for health and wellbeing support for students, and to acknowledge the factors that are contributing to declining mental health in students.

We spoke to Ollie Kasper, Head of Engagement at Student Minds, to find out why it’s important that universities help to improve students’ mental health and how Student Minds are working with universities to achieve this.

Student Minds is the UK’s mental health charity, who empower students and members of the university community to develop the knowledge and skills to look after their own mental health and support others to create change.

Should universities care about students’ mental health? 

A university is defined as ‘a high level educational institution in which students study for degrees and academic research is done’ according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Why is it then, that as an educational institution, universities should be spending time and money investing in better facilities to help improve students’ mental health?

“I think when you look at reputation, in terms of retention and student satisfaction, it is in the university’s best interest to take responsibility for some of those factors that might contribute to mental health,” Kasper says.

Supporting this, the Office for Students (OfS) published data in March 2019 showing that full time students with a declared mental health condition are more likely to drop out of university, and less likely to achieve a first or 2:1 degree or secure good jobs after graduation. Not only is this distressing for students, but it would also bode badly for universities in terms of academic rankings, if the issue of poor mental health is not addressed.   

Dr Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, told The Independent that “Educational outcomes are dependent upon student wellbeing, so separating the two is a totally foolish distinction. If universities are looking to maximize their gain in terms of students completing courses with the highest possible grades, they need to look after their welfare.”

He then goes on to say that “Universities have the knowledge and skills to deal with student mental health, but they need to make it a priority.”

How does university life contribute to poor mental health?

With high study costs and increasing pressure to perform well in exams and assignments, as well as many students moving away from home for the first time, there are an abundance of factors that may contribute to students’ poor mental health in university. These include, but are not limited to social pressure, financial pressure, academic pressure, tight deadlines and encountering new experiences, as well as living independently for the first time.

Kasper from Student Minds says, “Going to uni for anyone, no matter how old they are, is a large period of transition. Around half of young people in the UK today go to university. There’s a lot riding on it in terms of your future life, career, finances or lifestyle.”

It’s important to remember that this transition period is not just difficult for young undergraduate first year students, it can also affect older students or even postgraduate students, as Kasper explains:

“If you’re moving from home to a university in a big city, that’s a big change. If you’re a mature student or a distance learner, then that’s a big change. I think that, in terms of the student experience, it’s kind of a big area to transition. I think that that is the reason why students are in such a unique position in society”.

Is there still stigma surrounding mental health? 

Mental illnesses have tended to carry a stigma that physical illnesses don’t have, due to their invisible nature.  This social stigma can be largely due to the belief that the mental health illness is self-inflicted or that the individual will be hard to talk to. If not confronted, these social stigmas can lead to exclusion and discrimination, which will only worsen the mental health sufferer’s problem.

However, stigma is, arguably, not as prevalent as it once was, helped by the increase of media attention and the normalization of mental health issues. Kasper from Student Minds says “stigma, generally, has reduced a lot, and more people are coming forward about mental health – a lot more people feel they can talk about it.”

He explains that attitudes in society have shifted a lot over the past decade in regards to talking openly about mental health, and indicates that educating people about it, is a good way to reduce social stigma. He says, “at student minds, we have this term ‘mental health literacy’, which is about people understanding more about mental health and learning the different models that people use and at ways of explaining mental health to people, and looking at giving people the confidence to talk about it.”

Do we need to do more to raise awareness of mental health problems? “In terms of awareness raising, I think that we need to move from awareness raising to action and change, which is why [Student Minds] run programs to try and get people taking action.” Kasper says.

Are universities doing enough to support students with mental health problems?

 “We think universities can do better” says Kasper, “which is why we’re leading the work with several partners to create and launch the University Mental Health Charter.” The Charter is a UK wide scheme to acknowledge and reward institutions that demonstrate good practice regarding mental health. “We're going to be publishing the principles of the framework of that charter in December this year.”

Students Minds say they take a ‘whole university approach’ to mental health, “which means not just looking at the services they provide but also the whole educational experience, through the lens of mental health and wellbeing.”

Universities UK, the membership body for universities in the UK, also believe that a whole university approach is the way forward, and have therefore created a step change plan to help improve students’ mental health. This plan encourages universities to involve staff and students at all stages of the journey to helping mental health.

They believe that universities play an important role regarding students’ mental health and say “the #stepchange in student mental health begins with higher education leaders adopting mental health as a strategic imperative”.

With universities working with these organizations and enforcing positive changes to improve students’ mental health, there will be a net benefit for universities and students alike, to make the university experience an all-round more supportive and inclusive one.

Final thoughts

So is mental health your university’s responsibility? We think it should be – at least partly. A university which takes care of students’ mental health is likely to have better academic results and a generally happier student body. Of course, it is up to students to seek help for problems affecting their own mental health, but we believe that universities should help students by providing this help, and making students aware of it.

We also agree with UK Universities and Student Minds’ idea of a unified ‘whole university’ approach, because poor mental health is not discriminatory, and it does not just affect one particular group of people –it can affect staff just as much as students! Universities should work as a single unit to reduce the factors that contribute to poor mental health, and make the facilities available to students better and more comprehensive, thereby helping to improve the university experience for everyone involved.

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In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected] In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

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Written by Chloe Lane
A Content Writer for TopUniversities.com, Chloe has a bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Reading and grew up in Leicestershire, UK. 

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yes this is our university responsibility that they know how to teach our professional programs and tackle our studies.