The #stepchange in student mental health begins with higher education leaders adopting mental health as a strategic imperative.
Mental health matters. It affects our relationships and our wellbeing. It determines how we learn, and our productivity. The way we understand and approach mental health may be our greatest challenge.
Through research and clinical education, universities already play an important role. But as participation in higher education has expanded, national trends in mental ill-health among young people have materialised in student populations, and there are sharp increases in demand for support services. The focus has turned to how universities look after their own communities of students and staff, to support them through mental health difficulties and help them to thrive and succeed.
This challenge is difficult to answer alone. Universities must work in close partnership with parents, schools and employers to prepare students for transitions and with the NHS to coordinate care for students.
But the main message is self-improvement. Universities should adopt mental health as a strategic priority, implementing a whole university approach, with students and staff involved at all stages of the journey.
Professor Steve West, Chair, Universities UK Mental Health in Higher Education Working Group, September 2017
The four reasons why mental health should be a strategic priority.
(Young people) want to grow up to be confident and resilient, supported to fulfil their goals and ambitions. So we are placing an emphasis on building resilience, promoting good mental health and wellbeing, prevention and early intervention, and looking at how we can do more upstream to prevent mental health problems before they arise.
The Rt Hon Theresa May MP
Higher education transforms lives and communities. How universities understand and approach mental health is at the heart of this mission, including how students and staff are enabled to thrive and realise their potential as well as how those in distress or experiencing mental illness are supported.
Our vision for mental health in higher education:
All children and young people should understand the importance of wellbeing and good mental health. They should develop the skills and resilience to keep well, and to understand the signs of being unwell and be confident to ask for help.
They should expect that the support available in education, the community and the health and care systems meets their needs.
Professor Dame Sue Bailey, Chair, Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition
‘Leaders of schools, colleges, universities and community organisations [to] take a whole organisation approach to the mental health of their students, young people and staff, so that it permeates every aspect of their work and is embedded across all policies, cultures, curricula and practice.’
2035 Vision, Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition
Why adopt a whole university approach?
A population approach to student mental health asks universities to reconfigure themselves as health-promoting and supportive environments.
Implementing a whole university approach to drive and sustain improvement across the organisation:
In 2015, following a cluster of student suicides at the University of York, the university set up a Student Mental Ill-health Task Group. Its report to the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Koen Lamberts, in March 2016 offered a number of recommendations. It proposed a headline investment of £500,000 over three years to improve university support for student mental health and to ensure better integration with NHS services. It also deployed a systematic approach to improvement via engagement with students and staff, action planning of interventions and measurement of outcomes. From 2017 onwards, to embed and sustain this strategic approach, York, along with the University of the West of England, Bristol, and Cardiff University, will pilot implementation of the whole university approach set out in this framework.
The Universities UK Framework has been developed to support higher education senior teams to adopt a whole university approach to mental health. Every institution will want to adapt it to context, building on strong engagement with students and staff and a robust evaluation of need.