Cultural change is necessary to improve student mental health

Jun 13, 2022 | Opinion, Sector & policy

We need to look at the whole university approach to mental health and wellbeing to improve student mental health, explains Juliet Foster from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London.

Even before the pandemic, media headlines were full of discussion of a ‘crisis’ in student mental health, with more and more students disclosing a mental health problem, and waiting lists for university counselling and support services growing ever longer.

While much research would suggest rates of mental health problems are actually higher amongst young people who are not at university, there is pretty much unanimous agreement within higher education that action needs to be taken to improve the health and wellbeing of our students.

This is now even more pressing, as we see cohorts arriving at university who have lived through the pandemic with its associated negative social and practical consequences. I explain more about how the pandemic has affected student mental health in my session at this summer’s ISE Student Recruitment Conference.

How should student mental health be addressed?

Recent discussion has acknowledged that merely increasing counselling or other individual support provision is not necessarily a feasible option.

While universities should, of course, continue to provide this support, the debate has shifted to a more public health, or ‘settings-based’ approach. In other words, what can we do in universities to prevent so many students from needing individual support services in the first place?

This involves us looking at what is being termed the ‘whole university’ approach to mental health and wellbeing.

Support continues to form an important part of this, but added to the mix we see the addition of three other pillars – learn, live and work. This means that, under ‘learn’, we consider the content and the organisation of how we teach and assess our students; under ‘live’ we consider all aspects of the wider university environment, both social and physical, and – critically – under ‘work’, we aim to consider university staff wellbeing too, not merely that of students.

All of this must be considered under the over-arching umbrella of enabling factors, calling us to examine our processes, procedures, governance, and wider institutional structure.

Cultural change for better student mental health

This is not uncomplicated. It calls universities to properly engage with culture change, and to start to embed the process of everyone seeing mental health and wellbeing as ‘their business’. This not only includes those who are not in traditional student-support roles, but also those who are not in traditional student-facing roles.

Just as we would hope that an equality analysis would form part of decision-making in any university, so too should an analysis of the impact on mental health and wellbeing (staff and student).

This can make some people uneasy. However, this is not about everyone becoming an expert in mental health or taking responsibility for the wellbeing of individual students. Instead, it is about the institution collectively considering and understanding (through research) what, in that institution, is beneficial and detrimental to wellbeing and taking action to address this.

Critically, this means that we need to return to those enabling factors: institutions must consider what they need to put in place to ensure that mental health and wellbeing can be prioritised in this way and to support staff in this process. The goal, eventually, is to work on changing the university environment to support good student mental health and wellbeing rather than expecting individuals to change to fit in with that environment.

 Hear more from Juliet about how the pandemic has affected student mental health at ISE Student Recruitment Conference, taking place in Brighton and online 27-28 June 2022.


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