Student wellbeing: walking the walk

It’s not enough to talk about student mental health; we must embed mental wellbeing into university life post-Covid – and the Open University can help

2020 has been a year of ongoing fear and uncertainty that has affected university staff and students on a number of levels. In these times of stress, it is more important than ever that universities build mental wellbeing into everything we do.

Increasing numbers of young people have been experiencing mental health difficulties in recent years and the stress, uncertainty, loneliness and anxiety caused by Covid-19 has heightened these issues for many. It’s no longer enough for universities to assume that only a minority of students will experience mental health difficulties, and to offer support as service provision to those few. Now, more than ever, learning and teaching need to be designed to support mental wellbeing from the outset, and managing mental health needs to be a central focus of universities’ recovery curriculum.

There are several aspects of the university experience that need to actively consider student wellbeing.

Firstly, learning environments, including distance and blended spaces, need to be positive spaces that openly acknowledge, de-stigmatise and engender wellbeing. They need to support community, openness and compassion, throughout the many different facets of student life.

Secondly, curricula and tuition need to build confidence, provide respite, celebrate achievements and encourage growth. Skills for study success and managing mental wellbeing need to be actively embedded, and the crossover between these skills should be openly acknowledged. Curricula should both include content that explicitly covers mental health, compassion and wellbeing (framed within the subject discipline) and should also be designed in a way that supports wellbeing (i.e. avoiding practices that have been shown to trigger mental health issues). Crucially, assessment strategies need to begin to move away from high-pressure exam environments, and be designed in a way that enables students to demonstrate and develop skills to cope with the changing world they find themselves in.

Crucially, assessment strategies need to begin to move away from high-pressure exam environments

Thirdly, university leadership needs to commit to a whole-institution approach to embedding mental wellbeing through every aspect of student and staff experience. This includes university systems and processes, which need to support staff and students instead of testing them and to flex according to student needs rather than obstruct them. It includes giving voice to people, both staff and students, who can act as role models, and acknowledging intersectionality of mental health with other protected characteristics, tying it in with inclusion more broadly.

Finally, it includes ensuring that university values, policy and strategy embody the institution’s commitment to mental health and actively support opportunities for success for all students.

The need for a proactive, holistic approach to student mental wellbeing is increasingly well recognised in the sector, and is championed by sector bodies such as UUK, Advance HE and Student Minds. However, there is a paucity of guidance for university staff on the practical application of this advice. Open questions remain around how curricula, pedagogy and assessment strategies can be conducive to wellbeing, and what a whole-institutional approach looks like in practice. To address this need, the Open University has created a microcredential called Teacher Development: Embedding Mental Health in the Curriculum. This 12-week course has been designed to share best practice with educators and develop their knowledge and skills to apply inclusive teaching strategy that supports young people’s mental health and helps them develop resilience in the modern world.

It has been said about Covid-19 that while we may all be in different boats, we are all in the same storm. Covid-19 has rocked higher education. We now need to work together to support our students and each other; we need mental wellbeing to be openly spoken about, and for our curricula and learning environments to reflect and teach the caring and compassion skills that can get us all through these difficult times.

Kate Lister is manager for accessibility and inclusive practice at The Open University and Lead Educator on Teacher Development: Embedding Mental Health in the Curriculum

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