Higher education in the mental health age

Mental health issues have become a growing problem among students. Ben Behrens investigates how HE can tackle this

Demand for mental health services on campus is on the rise. A 2013 NUS report revealed up to 20% of students experience mental health problems, whilst a 2015 report from the same put the figure at 78%. A 2016 Unite Students report claims one-in-eight applicants and students have a named mental health condition. Whichever figure you subscribe to, this is a growing problem: the same Unite Students report and a HEPI/HEA report revealed something shocking: that levels of student wellbeing are actually lower than those of 16–24-year-olds not in higher education. Whatever added pressures the opportunity of university brings, this is surely a cause for concern.

The moral duty of care universities and accommodation providers have to their students is obvious, but it’s in their long-term interests too: unhappy students won’t stick around for long. Mental health and student retention are proven to go hand in hand.

There is no magic bullet to dealing with this, but a complex web of prevention and cure within the industry, and society as a whole, is what is needed to turn things around, and prevent the issue from becoming a crisis.


The sector is not lacking in solutions, however. A walk round most university buildings will take you past flyers and posters for helplines, urging students to get in touch with any problems they might be having. Jenny Shaw, Head of Student Services at Unite Students, tells me about their deal with Nightline to roll out their provision for all cities they operate in, “every student who lives with us has access to a Nightline. We want to make it OK to phone up. To make it visible.”

Providing access to that service is the first step. But students often need encouragement to reach out to those provisions. There is an increasing move towards encouraging signposting: that is, having staff trained in spotting mental health red flags in students, and being able to direct them to the right services that they might not look for of their own accord. Mental Health First Aid training is increasingly common, and has been extended to all staff in institutions such as University of Wolverhampton. Rebecca O’Hare, Campus Living Villages’ Resident Life Manager, explains the importance of training all staff, including accommodation staff, in signposting students’ problems: “They might see the students more often than anyone else… we don’t want them to be providing answers, but they can certainly point students in the right direction.” 

Mental Health First Aid training will be compulsory for all of their staff in the coming year. In short, the sector is being loaded with information and staff trained to get students seeking help in the right places.

The first year is when students are at their most vulnerable, but it’s also when they make connections. There is the strongest possible support around them: night porters, security staff, RAs

All of this is certainly encouraging, but Hamish Elvidge, chair of Matthew Elvidge Trust, which supports universities and charities in tackling mental health problems in students, says it is only part of the solution: “So much of what is done in business and education environments is about providing support when there’s a problem. It’d be better to prevent the problem in the first place.”

An environment needs to be created that encourages openness and resilience in students from their first day. Like many things, the answer begins in the home, or at least in accommodation, and there is an increasing move to make university accommodation a more open place to be. Hamish explains: “Communal areas are important, so not just providing a room and a communal kitchen, but areas where students can interact.” 

It’s something that’s being taken on board, as Unite Students build more accommodation with integrated floors and more open-plan space for their tenants. The accommodation in Manchester Metropolitan University’s new development, Birley Campus, has been built on the same lines: 

“We wanted to have something that felt like a home. All the houses share a lounge and a kitchen for socialising… it feels like a mews house,” explains Paula Dalziel, Residential Life Manager. If this sounds like a soft solution, it isn’t: a Unite report from 2016 found that better integrated students were less likely to consider leaving.

This is where big data gets involved too. Red Brick Research have developed the algorithm Project SASHA™, which allocates students their accommodation through a comprehensive series of questions designed to ascertain attitudes and lifestyle, thereby increasing compatibility between cohabiters. It works, too: SASHA™ allocated students rated their overall satisfaction 12% higher than a control group, and their peer relationships 14% better. The algorithm is in use in a number of institutions, and Red Brick are looking to roll it out across the sector. 

This emphasis on accommodation is very necessary: the first year of university (when students are most likely to be in accommodation) is crucial. “The first year is when students are at their most vulnerable, but it’s also when they make connections. There is the strongest possible support around them: night porters, security staff, RAs,” says Chris Tucker, Head of Campus Welfare at Sussex University. 

“Research shows if you can get a student through the first year that’s the biggest key to retention,” he added.

Every institution we spoke to had a programme for encouraging wellbeing from the first day of university: students now have access to workshops teaching them all manner of skills from coping with exam stress to cookery. As the uptake on these improves, hopefully it will begin to eat into the problem, and resilience will be built in students before a crisis hits.

But a truly preventative strategy will require something of a revolution in the way education is thought about, argues Hamish: “We need to make mental health part of the conversation of everyday life. I argued this at an event once and after a physics professor asked me ‘does this mean when I’m talking about a theory in physics that I can link it back to wellbeing and mental health?’ 

“She was seeking permission to talk about it. I said ‘of course!’… this should be embedded into every part of the curriculum, led from the top and embedded into staff training.” Hamish has partnered with UUK to launch a framework for a whole university approach to mental health from a strategic level. Expect to see it out later in the year.

With society as a whole, the HE sector needs to move towards a preventative model, in which access to services from charities and the NHS is both convenient and visible, in which staff and students feel liberated to discuss this issue in whatever context, and in which buildings and programmes are designed with resilience and wellbeing firmly in mind. 

In the meantime, the sector is working hard to deliver programmes and services to a student populace in increasing need of them. As Hamish surmises: “This has gone far enough.”

Mental health initiatives in HE:

● The University of Surrey have a very comprehensive selection of workshops, from managing sleep and sorting out meals to stress-relieving aural acupuncture! www.surrey.ac.uk/currentstudents/wellbeing/health/learn/events/

● The University of Leeds: Culture Shock Comedy Drama. Every year the Leeds Universities’ Chaplaincy performs a revue for the incoming international students to give them an entertaining primer on British manners and customs. They also do a ‘reverse culture shock’ show at the end of the year to prepare them for going back! www.leeds.ac.uk/chaplaincy/pages/international/International.htm

● Mental Health Matters Society at Sheffield Union’s #Letstalk campaign includes film screenings, workshops and a living library! www.sheffield.ac.uk/ssid/healthycampus/mental-health-events

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