Changing the narrative surrounding mental health in higher education and how we can capture that on a digital platform

 

What is the current situation?

In the process of applying for university, we often find ourselves focusing on the course a university offers, or where the uni sits in the league tables, or even the city in which the uni is situated. However very few of us choose our university based on the support they provide to ensure the wellbeing of their students. On a national scale, the bar needs to get raised so that we see universities championing new and innovative ways of making support as accessible as possible to its students’, and the solution may lie in digital access.

The way in which universities are recognised for their merits, ranked and respected is changing – 2019 saw the first ever university mental health charter published, and a huge shift among Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) moving towards a wellbeing-centred approach to education. For students, this is a really positive change – but the big question lies unanswered – do we really know how much our universities make available to us in order to support our wellbeing at uni?

So often in mainstream media we see reports of ‘catastrophic failings’ in the higher education sector, and shocking statistics listing the exponential rise in students suffering with mental health issues. The narrative is centred around the students who get left waiting, the students who drop out, and in the worst cases, the students who take their own lives. It is right to be calling the sector out on its failings, and it is right to put pressure on universities to tighten up their mental health support services – we can all agree that there is a huge margin for improvement. However it can be immensely damaging to the wellbeing of students to read these endless cases of failings – more than anything, it can shatter the confidence we have in our institutions to look after our mental health whilst we are studying with them. It sets up an assumption that we are only going to be let down if we turn to our uni’s for support, which in turn makes us less likely to make that decision in the first place.

 

What do universities do?

As students, we become a unique demographic of people. For many of us, we are living away from home for the first time, and it goes without saying that there are a huge number of external environmental factors which affect our day-to-day wellbeing, which we have no control over. However, for many of us, it will be the only time in our lives that we have access to a huge range of services which are dedicated to supporting our wellbeing, alongside our education. As much as we have no control over who we get put in a flat with in our first year, we do have control over the decisions we make surrounding our mental health. Those decisions are affected by the information we have available to us – how can we choose to join a free yoga class if we do not know about it? The sheer number and variety of activities and services that our uni’s have to offer is often a complete mystery to us.

My university held a wellbeing week in the first semester of this academic year, centred around the ‘5 steps to wellbeing’. There were walks in the park, free yoga sessions, coffee mornings to drop in to, quality time to spend with dogs, advice sessions on living and eating on a budget, mindfulness sessions, ice skating socials, chats at the pub about the stresses of uni life – the list goes on! Not all of those activities suit everyone, but the chances are that there is something for everyone in there, especially if you can get a friend involved too. What surprised me about discovering these activities, is that they take place all year round, and are available to everyone – but I didn’t know about them. We are fortunate enough to have a team of people who are passionate about improving our wellbeing, working round the clock to support us and offer us a huge variety of services to catch those first signs of anxiety or loneliness, and offer support to those of us who are already experiencing mental health issues. There is an assumption amongst young people that the only way to treat signs of mental illness is through counselling, and very often we won’t apply for access to counselling until we desperately need it – by which point, the long waits can do some serious damage to our long term mental health. If we can get students taking full advantage of all of the early interventional, community run, non-clinical options which are available to us, less students will find themselves feeling lonely, and potentially developing more serious mental health issues whilst they are studying.

We need to champion the many things that our universities DO do to support us and our wellbeing, and this shift in narrative will in turn feed in to fighting the stigma surrounding mental health. Unfortunately it is extremely common that we self-stigmatise mental health issues, which can very easily lead to a delay in addressing them, talking about them, or treating them. It is not easy to fight a stigma by getting people people talking about mental health, but if we can get universities to communicate the services they’ve got at a surplus, to start and encourage these conversations, it will be clearer to students how incredibly common it is to feel lonely, anxious and stressed. If this happens, we will be one step closer to normalising the subject and engaging students support. Early intervention is so key to addressing and tackling mental health issues, but equally important is having an environment in which belonging is promoted, and experiences are shared.

Digital platforms

The means of communication is where digital platforms come in to the equation. We need to have the info at our fingertips. We need it to be as accessible as possible. We deserve the support that is available, and it deserves to be amplified. We are in a tech generation – 92% of millennials have a smartphone. The information and signposting that we need to access these services in order to normalise the conversation needs to be ready for us to access at ease. We need to capture the positive potential of applications in communicating a positive and supportive narrative surrounding mental health in higher education.

As much as the number of students developing mental health issues is on the rise, the number of students joining university with a mental health issue is on the rise in a big way, so ensuring the support is well-communicated to these students is incredibly important to prevent feelings of groundlessness. We do not want to perpetuate mental health issues, especially given the number of innovative, inclusive and supportive services available to us. These kinds of services offer support in the times of waiting, the times of extra stress, the times of unfamiliarity, and though they aren’t claiming to cure mental health issues, they can certainly provide a vital level of support to so many students feeling the affects of university life on their mental health. If we can prevent students from needing counselling which, in itself is a daunting process for anyone to embark on, Universities need to champion all of the services which feed in to supporting our wellbeing, making it known to us that counselling is by no means the only option.

 

Josie Hawkins,

Founder of ‘Unified’