Next steps for supporting student mental health: Key points from the Westminster Higher Education Forum policy conference

next steps for supporting student mental health

We went along to the Westminster Higher Education Forum policy conference: Next steps for supporting student mental health, held last week on the 21st January. There were lots of interesting and important conversations had and points made. Here are five of the many key points discussed on the day.

1. Student mental health is at an important point in social change

There was a general sense of optimism on the day as colleagues from the sector met at the Congress Centre in London to focus on student mental health and discuss the next steps for supporting students.

In her inspiring talk, Rosie Tressler, Chief Executive at Student Minds, spoke about the charity’s recently published University Mental Health Charter and the key priorities for its implementation. She started by saying how encouraged she feels at seeing universities prioritising student mental health. She stated that the topic has reached an important point in social change, thanks to activism from both students and staff who have campaigned for mental health to become more of a priority in their institution.

Now, universities are placing mental health high on the agenda and the sector is shifting towards proactiveness and prevention. Rosie wants this to continue – for there to be a ‘prevention revolution’. Overall, Rosie feels optimistic about the direction the sector is moving in and believes that change is possible when it comes to supporting mental health in higher education.

“Understandably, much of the focus in national discussions has been on avoiding and responding to mental illness. Our view is that the absence of illness, while important, is not enough. Universities can be places that are good for the mental health of our communities.”

Rosie Tressler, Chief Executive, Student Minds

2. Stigma is still impacting on student disclosure of mental health conditions

The second panel session of the day was titled: ‘Ensuring that vulnerable students can engage with mental health provision – identifying students in need of support, destigmatising mental illness and improving awareness and accessibility of services.’

In his talk, Alan Percy, Head of Counselling Service at the University of Oxford, spoke about how stigma differs between mental health conditions. For example, over the past few years, anxiety and depression have become largely de-stigmatised. This is due to the work of campaigners, raised awareness and increased discussion. On the other hand, there’s still a way for us to go when it comes to perceived stigma around bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and psychosis. Without reduced stigma around these conditions, it’s unlikely that students’ disclosure of them will increase.

John de Pury, Assistant Director of Policy at Universities UK, spoke about how other sectors are more advanced than higher education when it comes to disclosing mental health conditions at senior leadership level. “Students are having open conversations”, he said. So, hopefully senior leaders within HE will get there too.

Related to this, UUK are launching a refreshed strategic framework called ‘Mentally Healthy Universities’ in March 2020. This aims for university leadership to lead in mental health as a strategic, senior level priority. Hopefully, this will help to normalise conversation and disclosure, increase support, and reduce stigma.

westminster higher education policy forum

3. Flexibility and personalisation is needed in student support

Another point made by Alan Percy was that ideally, there should be a spectrum of support offered to students according to the mental health condition they are experiencing. As the example Alan gave, when it comes to physical health, we would use different treatment for a one-off headache than we would for an ongoing condition such as Crohn’s disease. We therefore: “can’t group all mental health together but need varying services for differing levels.”

Additionally, there should be a range of ways that students can access support. Alan spoke about young men, which remains a vulnerable demographic. He emphasised that there needs to be a way for those who go under the radar to access help. This was also a topic discussed recently in a guest blog post by James Murray.

Piers Wilkinson, Disabled Students’ Officer at the NUS, agreed that when it comes to student support, a ‘one size fits all’ approach just doesn’t work. For example, he said of 24-hour cancellation policies, that they aren’t right for wellbeing services since: “mental health issues don’t give 24-hour warnings”. He said that if students do need to cancel appointments last minute, they need to be offered support in a way that is feasible and achievable for them. Ideally, students would be asked: “What support package do you need?”.

This was an idea also explored by Ben Jordan, Senior Policy and Qualifications Manager at UCAS, in his talk. He spoke of a possible review of the questions on the UCAS university application form to collect relevant information so that universities can better support student mental health. Currently, there is just one general question on the form where students can disclose all and any physical or mental conditions. It was suggested that this question needs to be expanded, as well as incorporate room for the student to detail the support they feel would best suit them.

When a question was asked about the role online support can play, Piers answered that online support services can be helpful for students that can’t physically get to buildings. Yet, it must be additional to face-to-face support. This, we completely agree with at Enlitened; online support can have a significant impact but should always be offered as one part of a university’s wider wellbeing services.

4. Environment plays a key role in mental health

Also in Rosie Tressler’s talk, she spoke about how environment is a key determinant of mental health. She talked of how this means that there are opportunities to make improvements in universities in every area from sport to pedagogy, which can in turn affect student mental health. These are outlined in the Student Minds University Mental Health Charter.

Gareth Hughes, Psychotherapist and Research Lead, Student Wellbeing, at the University of Derby, also spoke in detail about the role environment plays in student mental health. This was in the fourth panel section of the day, titled: “Innovative approaches to the prevention of mental health issues – promoting emotional resilience, mental health awareness and supporting wellbeing.”

Gareth talked about the massive impact of our environment on everything we do, think and feel. With one cultural factor that has impacted student mental health being ‘competitive stress’ – claiming and demonstrating that you’re more stressed than someone else. The good news, Gareth says, is that culture is human made so it can be changed with human activity: “If we want to and we put our energy into it, we can make universities mentally healthy places for students and staff.”

This was a sentiment mirrored by Francis Hare, the Earl of Listowel, who was the second facilitator of the day. He said: “Our culture has lost its way when it comes to the welfare of young people. We’ve lost our sense of balance; we need to be aware of this and it needs to be part of the solution to supporting student mental health.”

“If we want to and we put our energy into it, we can make universities mentally healthy places for students and staff.”

Gareth Hughes, Psychotherapist and Research Lead, Student Wellbeing, University of Derby

5. There must be a whole university approach to supporting student mental health

The importance of a whole university approach to supporting student mental health was talked about in depth by John de Pury, in his talk following Rosie Tressler’s.

John explained that a ‘whole university approach’ conflates multiple elements. These are:

  • The whole student – this includes the student’s learning, research and outputs, but also their welfare and wellbeing.
  • The whole population – this means the welfare and wellbeing of staff as well as students.
  • The whole university – supporting staff and students through all four areas of the University Mental Health Charter step change framework (Learn, Support, Work, Live).
  • The whole system – support should be offered across place, across health systems, and also incorporate friends, families and transition periods.

Under this last point, John talked about the importance of integrating university support services with wider health and care services (such as the NHS). He said that universities “can’t and shouldn’t be alone in supporting student mental health”, so strong partnerships between the higher education and health sectors are needed. Unless there is an integrated, strategic approach taken to supporting students, multiple elements could end up competing rather than working holistically together.

“A whole university approach must include both adequately resourced, effective and accessible mental health services and proactive interventions. It must provide an environment and culture that reduces poor mental health, as well as supporting good mental health and facilitating staff and students to develop insights, understanding and skills to manage and maintain their own wellbeing.”

Rosie Tressler, Chief Executive, Student Minds

Next steps

The conference ended with a talk by Amy Norton, Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at the Office for Students. Amy spoke about the focus of the OfS’s work to date and the office’s priorities for 2020, particularly with regards to helping universities support student mental health. Read more in this summary of the Office for Students annual review of English higher education for 2019.

ofs next steps for supporting student mental health

In summary, there were many interesting and important points made at the Westminster Higher Education Forum policy conference regarding the next steps for supporting student mental health. These are just five of them. What is clear from the day is that some vital headway has been made by the higher education sector towards enhanced support of students. Yet, there is still a way to go. The general feeling from the conference though, is that the sector should be optimistic, determined and proud. With the help of guidance from organisations such as the OfS, UUK and Student Minds, documents like the University Mental Health Charter, along with institutions’ own prioritisation of student mental health, progression is moving in the right direction.