The growing concern of students and academics mental health

For the past few years, I have noticed an ever growing concern with students mental health at my own and other universities.  As a course leader and an academic adviser (AA), I get to see quite a few students who have a range of mental illnesses. 

A result of this is a raft of new initiatives coming into being over the last couple of years.  We have a range of services available to students with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia (along with various other terms used to describe mental and emotional wellbeing). 

For some students this has been most welcome and very useful, but for others, it still involves an increasingly long wait to see a specialist in a particular area – something which, for obvious reasons, is not good for them.

A big concern for me is that I don’t consider myself to be a counsellor, in fact, if I am brutally honest, I would be hard pushed to name, let alone understand, some of the mental health issues faced by some students at our university.  And yet, I am increasingly encountering more and more students with mental health issues.

There is, of course, always online advice to staff about what to look out for, how to handle various situations, who to contact and where to send students.  But the trouble with this is it seems to me such a very clinical process and can sometimes seem to lack any real care or understanding of the student’s issue or problem.

Therefore, over the last few months – before the coronavirus stopped play – we have been trying something different at our university, well at least in our department.  One senior lecturer, very aware of the problem that staff often have little or no training/understanding of student mental health issues set up an Academic Advisors Open Forum meeting. 

We had a very helpful Student Support Officer bring in several student scenarios for staff to work through in pairs.  The outcome of this was pretty dramatic.  Staff were not only able to discuss these, they could share their own experience and also communicate how student issues and problems had affected them. 

The session enabled real life situations to be clearly outlined along with real experiences of how these had been dealt with within our department. Staff left the meeting in a much stronger position in terms of knowing what to do in some of the circumstances they may encounter.  They also left knowing they were not alone and had colleagues who faced similar issues and problems.

It also highlighted the growing problem of lecturers own mental health – something Andrew Jack discussed in a recent article for the Financial Times – begging the question, “How can academics look after their student’s wellbeing effectively if they have mental health problems that are not being supported adequately?”

Training for staff is offered at our university: Mental Health Aware, Mindfully Strong, Performing Under Pressure, etc., are just a few of the courses that staff can access. However, quite often these are difficult to attend due to other commitments, or the training is on another campus or at an impossible time.

The session we ran wasn’t as well attended as we had hoped but seemed to make a real impact.  It was local, it was personal, it was genuine, and it was clearly needed.  So much so, we are trying to find a way to embed this into work plans for next year to involve a larger proportion of staff.

About the author

UKAT Blog Editor and Course leader for Sociology at Sheffield Hallam University

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