Why emotional health and wellbeing in Higher Education is everyone’s job

With 1 in 4 people experiencing mental health issues each year[1], emotional health and wellbeing have become a top priority for our society, and for young people, getting the right support can define their futures. With most emotional health problems occurring before the age of 25[2], it is essential that the infrastructure young people rely on, including Higher Education (HE), support them. Today, University Mental Health Day[3], brings together the university community to make mental health a university-wide priority and create support systems and positive change to the future of mental health in HE.

Establishing these support systems is needed now more than ever.  The pandemic has further highlighted multiple issues across HE, as it has in many sectors, the most critical being the wellbeing of the people at the heart of organisations. According to MIND, around one third of adults and young people said their mental health had become worse since March 2020.[4]  Whether it be individuals and teams getting to grips with new ways of working, or the shift to digital relationships and reactive working patterns, to the uncertainty in the job market and juggling caring responsibilities, the emotional burden on society has increased substantially.

Working as an Executive coach in HE and other sectors I am witnessing first-hand the heightened anxiety.  People are rightly worrying about the risks and impact of Covid-19 on health and jobs and the lack of a natural ‘university experience’ for students.  There are feelings of isolation, fear, increased workloads and demands on time, and in many cases no clear boundaries to the working day, which in turn are morphing professional and personal commitments into one.

During the pandemic (63%) of students reported a worsening of their wellbeing and mental health and they were also disproportionately likely to have experienced loneliness during this period, with 26% reporting they experienced loneliness, compared to 8% among the adult population.

This was particularly pronounced for students aged between 16 and 29, with 33% reporting that they felt lonely “often” or “always”.[5]

Loneliness, isolation, and heightened anxiety have an overwhelming impact on a person’s ability to deal with stress and even normal day to day situations can feel like another mountain to climb.  Resilience is affected, and whereas highly resilient people can adapt to new circumstances quickly and thrive in change, the inability to bounce back from the constant changing environment affects their natural coping mechanisms.

I often speak to clients about doing a daily self-care check, taking 10 minutes to check in with yourself on how you are feeling physically, emotionally, and where your thoughts are on that day: positive, negative, confused, overwhelmed?  Doing a 10-minute Physical Emotional Thinking Scan (PET Scan) creates space for your thoughts and grounds your thinking within the reality of your day. 

[1] Mental health statistics · MHFA England

[2] Mental health statistics: children and young people | Mental Health Foundation

[3] UMHD – Home (unimentalhealthday.co.uk)

[4] http://www.mind.org.co.uk

[5] Coronavirus and higher education students – Office for National Statistics

It is also important to ask yourself what will make it better or worse? and to be mindful of those triggers.  Basing your fears on reality and by seeking to truly understand your situation, focusing on what you can and can’t control, can often free the mind and focus it on actions that you can take.

In September 2017, Universities UK (UUK) introduced their Step Change Framework[1] challenging university leaders to ‘adopt mental health as a strategic imperative, implementing a whole university approach, with students and staff involved at all stages of the journey’. In order to ensure that the right support is in place for students and staff alike, universities are enlisting the help of charities such as MIND UK, THINK UK, regional mental health organisations, and qualified coaches and mentors.

These organisations and professionals provide support in training and guiding lecturers on how to spot students who are facing challenges and address them head on, help create and roll-out Peer Supporters schemes[2] for staff, and provide ongoing support for students and staff, allowing them to flourish. These activities are part of the universities’ commitment to meet the Mental Health at Work Commitment. However, there is more to be done.

Even with some of the strides being made to support students are universities equipped to deal with the complexities of student wellbeing and resilience?  Retention issues, impact on students’ career prospects and more seriously mental health issues going undetected?

In a recent conversation with Professor Steve West, Vice-Chancellor UWE, President of UUK and Chair UUK Working Group on Mental Health in Higher Education he commented that “the Step Change framework is now four years old and was developed for a pre-COVID-19 world. What we are witnessing as leaders of Higher Educational institutions over the past 18 months is monumental. We are only at the tip of the iceberg in understanding the long-term impact on our people; students and staff. We can no longer just talk about the emotional wellbeing of our people. We need to take action and do so now. We have a duty of care to the young people, their futures and the teams who support them. We need to ensure they have the time, space, and the right professional tools to support their journey.”

Although Mental Health is a topic at the top of many agendas, it is often competing with other priorities. We need to ensure this does not slide down the list of priorities.  This requires a holistic approach and one that is embedded into each university, college, and school.  They say it takes a Village to raise a young person, well it takes the right attitude, approach, training and coaching to understand how to protect and nurture the emotional wellbeing and resilience of your people. Today, looking after emotional health is everyone’s job. 

Karen Cairney, CEO of Fundraising Consultancy, Cairney & Company, is an accredited Executive Coach through the Academy of Executive Coaching (AoEC).Biographies

[6] Stepchange: mentally healthy universities (universitiesuk.ac.uk)

[7] Mentally Healthy Universities – Mind

Karen Cairney, Founder and CEO of Cairney & Company is an experienced and established senior level professional in the higher education, not-for-profit and fundraising sectors. She has helped develop the potential of regional, national and global organisations for over 25 years in Canada, US, Asia and the UK, and has experience in the key sectors of health, education, arts, environment and social services.

Karen leads programmes of change that are focused on staff and individual development. She is an accredited Executive Coach through the Academy of Executive Coaching (AoEC) and completed the Practitioner Diploma.

She is currently coaching teams and individuals in Higher Education and is a former mentor on the Aurora Advance HE leadership development initiative for women. Karen also holds an MBA (2011 Distinction) from Edinburgh Napier and has managed multiple HE teams over her career.

Karen is a sought-after industry speaker at Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), the Institute of Fundraising and other high profile industry events.

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