Almost five times as many students as 10 years ago have told their universities about a mental health condition, according to the Institute of Public Policy Research analysis published earlier this year. As such, 94% of UK higher education providers surveyed by IPPR said they had experienced a rise in demand for counselling services in the past five years. More worryingly, the number of students who have dropped out of university with mental health issues has more than trebled in recent years, according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
In a bid to better understand this complex topic and see how different universities are approaching student wellbeing, we spoke with John Hilsdon the Head of Learning Support and Wellbeing at the University of Plymouth, Julie Spencer the Head of Student Wellbeing at the University of Lincoln and Wayne Campbell the Director of Student Services at the University of Kent.
Mental Health Matters
“Studying at University brings a wealth of opportunities but also challenges to young people. Alongside academic studies, students need to learn to manage day to day life including settling in to a new city or country, building new relationships and friendships and managing new responsibilities such as finances and budgets,” says Wayne Campbell, the Director of Student Services at the University of Kent. “For many students this is a transition which is manageable with the advice and support of family and friends. Some students, however, may not have a solid network of support to draw upon and these young people often benefit from support at University to build their confidence, resilience and coping skills.”
Of course it’s natural for such a pivotal and transformative period of life to result in stress and anxiety, however these challenges have always existed. After speaking with all three wellbeing professionals three new areas of concern arose: “Worries about finding employment after graduation, the accumulation of debt caused by the removal of grants, and the rise of social media have all brought new challenges,” says John Hilsdon, the Head of Learning Support and Wellbeing at the University of Plymouth.
UK university tuition, once free, is now one of the most expensive in the world according to a new analysis. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies students in England are going to graduate with average debts of £50,800. “Additional challenges for students today include the rising cost of studying at University and anxiety about student debt. Students often describe a fear of failure linked to pressure to live up to high expectations due to these financial commitments,” says Wayne.
Despite the high costs, more young people than ever before are attending university (though there is some evidence to suggest this is changing) which is fuelling a sense of competitiveness. “There is a lot more pressure on students to be successful and a more competitive environment for them to deal with in terms of employability,” says Julie Spencer, the Head of Student Wellbeing at the University of Lincoln.
Social Media and Peer Pressure
Research has found that popular social media such as Instagram and Facebook can increase feelings of inadequacy in 14 – 24-year-olds and it’s been highlighted as an area of concern within higher education institutes too. “Social media has also been identified as a potential source of stress and anxiety due to the emphasis on social success and competence in addition to academic success,” says Wayne.
If left unchecked, such peer pressure can have devastating consequences. “Many students report feeling under pressure to be seen as popular and socially successful. Peer pressure can sometimes lead to dangerous behaviours associated with illegal drugs and there are growing numbers of students who seek help for suicidal thoughts or who self-harm,” says John.
Fortunately, as well as the issues facing today’s students, the way mental health is viewed and approached is changing too. “Wellbeing and mental health are seen more as issues which affect us all and exist on a scale of severity and complexity rather than being seen as problems that may affect a small group of people. The willingness of high profile celebrities to talk about their wellbeing and mental health problems publicly has helped to destigmatise matters and bring it more into the open,” says Wayne.
The importance of promoting student wellbeing
Promoting wellbeing helps create a better overall experience for students, which ultimately benefits everyone. “If students are able to find support, advice and information and to develop coping skills for life, they are more likely to continue with and be successful in their academic studies, enjoy their student experience and contribute more positively to student life,” says Wayne.
As highlighted in the introduction, struggling with mental health and dropping out of university are closely connected. “Research from the US (especially a study conducted over several years by the University of Michigan) shows students reporting high levels of depression and anxiety are twice as likely to leave university without graduating than their counterparts. This translates into a very strong economic case for wellbeing support in addition to the social and human benefits,” says John.
But as well as keeping students happier and in university, promoting wellbeing can also help students to develop and improve concentration, motivation and energy levels, “all of which can be beneficial not only for personal wellbeing but also to studies. These strategies can be built on and used throughout life,” says Julie.
How universities are promoting student wellbeing
Universities are responding to the evolving needs of students in many ways. One of the big changes is the integration of wellbeing into other university and partner services. “Universities are moving towards offering more integrated wellbeing and mental health services which reflect this model, including wellbeing promotional events, self-help and psycho-educational resources, counselling and specialist advice and mentoring (one to one or group work) and liaison with external specialist mental health services,” says Wayne.
John agreed that at the University of Plymouth they have adopted a ‘more joined up approach’ whereby academic staff, counsellors, disability advisers and others work together closely when students report problems. Julie agrees and said the emphasis at the University of Lincoln is on being proactive, rather than reactive. As such, they have invested in expanding their mental health provision through developing their wellbeing teams and increasing the number of mental health advisors and wellbeing advisors available to support students. Here are some of the specific actions the universities we spoke to are taking to promote mental wellbeing:
Hire enough staff: “The University of Plymouth has taken a proactive approach in appointing new wellbeing and mental health staff to work alongside counsellors over the last two years,” says John
Run workshops: “We now run a series of short workshops which all students can benefit from, examples of these are on exam stress, feeling homesick and dealing with challenging emotions,” says Julie.
Offer staff training: “We offer mental health first aid training to our staff – especially those acting as personal tutors, and there has been a good take up of this,” says John.
Be prepared: The University of Lincoln hosts a Wellbeing Orientation Welcome each summer which “aims to provide prospective students who have applied to come to the University with the opportunity to learn more about the University, what to expect and what is expected of them whilst studying at Higher Education level. WOW’s aim is to ease any anxieties students may have about the transition into University life,” says Julie.
Foster partnerships: “We also work with staff and agencies in the city such as Mind to help coordinate efforts and improve wellbeing services. We work with the police and have an on campus confidential sexual offences drop-in. We are negotiating with another agency to host an on campus drop-in facility for those experiencing domestic abuse,” says John.
Constant reminders: “The Student Wellbeing Centre will be running a new initiative throughout the academic year called Wellbeing Wednesdays. Representatives from the Wellbeing Centre will be out and about in different locations around campus, promoting and advising students on how to look after themselves. Each month will focus on a different aspect of wellbeing,” says Julie.
Ensure services are accessible: “We have also developed new policies on wellbeing to review the progress of students and to help them access support in a timely fashion. We now offer a 24 hour mental health advice line and new drop-in facilities as well as traditional booked appointments,” says John.
Make wellbeing integral: “The Wellbeing Team is an integral part of the Student Support and Wellbeing division within Student Services and offers support on campus to University of Kent staff and students, including counselling, consultation and liaison with academic schools, wellbeing advice and a mental health crisis drop-in service every afternoon on week days during term time,” says Wayne.
It is fantastic news that students are better able to get to grips with and speak about their mental health and universities are doing a fantastic job responding to their evolving needs. But we can’t rest on our laurels. “There is still a long way to go in breaking down negative stereotypes of mental health problems in society and tackling the fear of some students that identifying and seeking help for mental health problems will lead to discrimination, which will adversely affect the way they are perceived when seeking employment post University,” says Wayne. “The focus on destigmatising mental health and increasing widening participation seems to have led to an increase in students presenting with more long standing and complex mental health difficulties and this combined with pressures on NHS services in both Primary and Secondary care are causes for concern for all higher education institutions in the UK.”
Ultimately universities, partner services and students need to work together to devise a wellbeing strategy that truly works. By creating an effective and proactive wellbeing strategy, universities can help improve the student experience and life on campus, academic results and dropout rates.