Approximately one in four people report a mental health problem each year. This may equate to as many as 500,000 students per year. It is reported that 50% of chronic adult mental illness starts in adolescence, and 75% before the age of 24. As participation in higher education in the United Kingdom has expanded, national trends in mental ill-health among young people have materialised in our student populations.
Independent research commissioned by Universities UK (UUK) from the Institute for Public Policy Research confirmed that over the past 10 years there has been a fivefold increase in the proportion of students who disclose a mental health condition to their institution. Earlier work by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), found that demand for student support services increased by 150% between 2011 and 2015.
Given that the UK Strategy for Outward Student Mobility aims to double the percentage of students undertaking an international placement by 2020, it is likely that some of those students will require assistance on account of a mental health condition at some point before, during or after that placement. It should be noted that even though studying, working or volunteering abroad can be an exciting and culturally rewarding experience, it can also be stressful.
There's a lot of research, including HEFCE's report Understanding provision for students with mental health problems and intensive support needs, to indicate transitions can be particularly difficult. So, what can universities do to support student's wellbeing and mitigate the stresses that come with transitions and going to a new environment?
In September 2017, UUK launched the Step Change Framework, encouraging university leaders to take a whole institution approach to mental health, meaning that every part of the university has a role to play when it comes to mental health. I will give a couple of examples of how aspects of this framework are applicable to outward mobility.
It is important to discuss mental health with students, who are interested in spending time abroad. Running a workshop like the University of Edinburgh on how to look after your mental health and wellbeing when overseas is a good way to address the topic early.
In the prevention section of the framework it is recommended to provide learning and tools for self-care and positive mental health. There are several online resources that students can use either in advance, during, or after the placement, which could mitigate some of the difficulties. For example, Student Minds provides some ideas and tips for preparing for the year abroad, as well as blogs from students such as Year Abroad Blues. More generic wellbeing tips can be found on the National Health Service (NHS) or Mind websites, among many others.
Secondly, it is just as important to discuss mental health with the host university (transitions section). Different countries might have differing attitudes towards mental health and counselling, distinct rules on medicines and availability of prescription drugs and how one can access them. Having those conversations early can help ensure effective signposting of support while abroad.
The staff section of the framework highlights the significance of maintaining good mental health for students, yourself, and others affiliated with the programme. Staff members might find themselves in situations where they do not know what is the right thing to say or do. To avoid these situations and enhance confidence when dealing with a potential mental health difficulty, it is worth providing mental health literacy training for mobility staff, mobility ambassadors, and others. More and more universities are providing various training sessions, for example Mental Health First Aid. It is also worth looking at the existing student support services at your institution. There are also free e-resources available for all staff created by Charlie Waller Memorial Trust.
There are many more instances where Step Change Framework is transferable to outward mobility and I would encourage you to have a look and see what is relevant to your institution to ensure that students are best supported from pre-departure through to when they return.