What picture do you have personally of the current provision of mental health services in HE institutions?
Clearly, the statistics speak for themselves. We know there is a significant increase in self-reported student mental health; we have somewhere between 25%–33% of our students regularly reporting on an annual basis that they have mental health problems. That’s higher than it used to be – by any measure. The increase in suicides is, of course, extremely concerning, and those statistics speak for themselves. There’s been a lot of discussion of causation, but I don’t think there’s any definite answer to it. It’s certainly not exclusive to universities, it’s a societal issue. The issues young people are facing are definitely not just a product of their time at university; it’s a societal issue that we all face. If you look at the figures of adult mental health in the community – they’re not that dissimilar.
What role do senior decision-makers have to play in combating student mental ill health?
The Universities UK framework document, and other research in this area, indicates the critical role they can take on as leadership. They set the scene at universities both in the provision of support and services but, more importantly, they also establish the cultural norms around community, within the university, student and staff. One of the ways we can prevent mental health issues arising, and minimising their impact, is by creating a community which cares for its own; that doesn’t exasperate the issues that individuals already have, by creating a climate where individuals feel able to express what’s going on around them without fear of being judged, persecuted or discriminated against. We need to focus on creating a community that recognises, responses and signposts people who have mental health issues. It’s a whole university response that’s required. It’s not just an issue that can be fixed by just improving one individual aspect.
“We’re seeing a groundswell, a shift, in the recognition of the mental health needs of our students and, I emphasise, our staff.”
What strategies and campaigns does Bath itself implement?
The University of Bath has a multi-faceted approach. To help improve mental health, we’ve got to start almost before the students arrive. Our open days involve talks about mental health; we provide students and parents with advice about how they can prepare themselves for university. The key message is balance. Balancing academic success and commitment to achievement with active body, mind and social life. The notion of balance and respect underpins our strategy all the way through – they’re the two key elements of our induction programme. This programme begins before arrival through electronic means and continues all the way through. It’s essence is respect for self, respect for others; building a community, building a sense of responsibility for fellow students whether that’s on a night out or online. We’ve had an excellent response – students are taking care of each other.
We’ve also introduced a professional wellbeing service – professional wellbeing advisors work 9am–8pm, running drop-in provision every day of the year, any student can come in and be seen on the day. Effectively, we have no waiting list for the service. It allows us to meet the needs of those who are really in need. It’s only the first year we’ve run this service and already 1,600 students, 10% of our students overall, have been through the service. It’s been a really useful innovative, but we also recognise that, critically, students identify with their discipline and department. So we need to ensure staff in those departments are well prepared, alongside normal training about mental first aid and the like, we have a staff helpline. It’s 4321, a nice easy number and every staff member – academic and professional – knows that if they have a student who comes to them with a problem, or displays troubling behaviours, then all they have to do is call that number and they’ll get through to student services who’ll provide them with advice.
Where will we be in five or ten years’ time in regards to student mental health?
I think there are parallels with the MeToo campaign. We’re seeing a groundswell, a shift, in the recognition of the mental health needs of our students and, I emphasise, our staff. I do see a temperature change in the water in regards to this.