Boosting awareness of mental health in HE

With mental health cited by growing numbers of students as the reason for dropping out of uni, how can educational institutions better support them?

By Mary Memarzia, Director of Student Services, Bellerbys College Cambridge

Mental health issues affect a growing number of students. Day-to-day difficulties include loneliness, stress and generally feeling overwhelmed. For international students – far from the security of home, family support and the familiarity of their own education system – the initial excitement of living and studying abroad can be replaced by homesickness, isolation and insecurity. Transitions are challenging, so too is independent living. Left untreated, students can become incapacitated, unable to do simple things like cook a healthy meal, let alone perform academically.

The Minding our Future report, by Universities UK, shows that mental health problems contribute to students dropping out of university, with the number trebling in recent years. To combat the issue in international students, universities need to support their wellbeing through initiatives that consider specific cultural challenges as well as extra-curricular needs.

Overcoming cultural challenges

The diversity within our international learning community is to be celebrated. But, as the Minding Our Future report acknowledges, ‘support from within universities needs to build from nuanced understanding of the differing identities and characteristics of individual students’. When it comes to providing mental health support, it’s impossible to devise a one-size-fits-all approach that caters to all cultural backgrounds.

Student support staff need to tailor their approach according to individual student needs. This requires training; empowering staff with the specific counselling skills they need to identify anxiety or distress triggers so they can provide help.

The ability to listen and observe is also crucial. As some cultures don’t encourage asking for help, distress may be hard to identify. Added to this, finding the language to articulate emotional pain can mean that silence is an easier option.

Of course, as important as it is to spot mental health issues among students and take immediate action, institutions need to reduce the risk of these problems arising at all.

“If students and staff are better equipped to spot vulnerability and the signs of mental health issues in the early stages, then strategic action can be taken sooner rather than later.”

Encouraging active participation

Successful university tenure does not depend on academic performance alone. It’s important that international students engage with their new environments and participate in activities that enrich their experiences and strengthen their connections. At Bellerbys, our Feed Your Mind enrichment programme – alongside extra-curricular activities like the Duke of Edinburgh Award and Model United Nations – provide international students with an opportunity to explore their host country, get involved in debates and visit places of historical and cultural importance. Along the way, friendships are formed.

Students are exposed to a wider world beyond the confines of their institutions. They get to meet a diverse group of people who, while strangers at the outset, become friends in a shared journey of discovery. The positive feeling of community, generated by extra-curricular participation, is critical to limiting – and overcoming – feelings of alienation and isolation that can lead to or exacerbate pre-existing mental health issues. These activities also provide another space for staff/student contact in a less formal setting, encouraging dialogue and opportunities for students to share ongoing concerns.

“Student support staff need to tailor their approach according to individual student needs. This requires training; empowering staff with the specific counselling skills they need to identify anxiety or distress triggers so they can provide help.”

Working together

The only way for any institution to provide successful mental health support to its students, is if support staff, teachers, residence staff and administrators all work as a team. Overcoming mental health factors such as stress and loneliness requires a considered approach that pays attention to the students’ studies, as well as life outside the classroom.

Everyone, even fellow students, are responsible for creating a welcoming, inclusive and supportive university culture. However, mental health issues may be tainted with prejudice and stigma, or not even recognised in home countries, which is often why students don’t seek help. The number disclosing is increasing, but at a slow pace; we need to recognise and amplify the student voice.

Awareness events such as Time To Talk Day, and the recent Mental Health Awareness Week, encourage a collective dialogue and help undo the taboo surrounding mental health. In effect, they align the importance of mental fitness with physical fitness, promoting both as key to university and life after graduation. Engaging students in peer support programmes and charity fundraising events that focus on mental health, exposes them to important conversations about emotional wellbeing. Real, positive change is achieved only by first acknowledging the problem and then providing students in need with relevant, effective support. This requires aligning in-house services with external organisations and working collaboratively with the NHS and specialist local providers.

University demands an adjustment for all students. International students may feel doubly overwhelmed and struggle to find their feet. Striving for success depends on learning to thrive. If students and staff are better equipped to spot vulnerability and the signs of mental health issues in the early stages, then strategic action can be taken sooner rather than later.