HEPI has produced two recent reports on the important issue of students’ mental health (see here and here). Jointly with the Higher Education Academy, we also survey students each year to assess their wellbeing.

So we were delighted to see the important new report from Student Minds entitled Student Mental Health: The Role and Experiences of Academics, which Rachel Piper, Policy Manager at Student Minds, blogs about below. 

In HEPI’s 2016 report The invisible problem? Improving students’ mental health the author, Poppy Brown, says:

Academics are expected to have a significant research output to satisfy the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and are to be assessed more closely on the quality of their teaching through the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Close personal and proactive care of students of the sort provided by teachers is simply not possible for most academic tutors, and – unlike school pupils – most students are legally adults.

Academics help determine the quality of the student experience, but what role do they play in student mental health and wellbeing?

Through interviews with 52 academics (at five universities) with diverse experiences, Student Minds’ researchers found that responding to student mental health problems is now an inevitable part of the academic role. Often, universities encourage students to seek advice and support from academics for pastoral issues.

But most academics are unprepared for the inevitable demands of their role in relation to student mental health and, in the absence of training, support or supervision, draw from personal experience. This creates substantial variability in the skills that academics bring to the role and means that students cannot be sure of the response they will receive if they turn to an academic for support.

Academics identified that, in practice, their role in relation to student mental health is ambiguous and unclear. Many academics feel it is impossible to draw a distinction between academic and pastoral support. While most recognise that, in theory, their role requires them to signpost to other services, those who have tried signposting students in distress find it is actually a more difficult, complex and nuanced task that might at first be assumed. Some academics struggle to be assertive in signposting and continue to provide support for students in distress because they have concerns that ‘something will go wrong’.

This frontline role is largely invisible, and the sector does not always have the appropriate structures or cultures to assist academics. Overall, the report calls for a significant culture shift. This is an opportunity to transform support structures for both academics and students that will improve the wellbeing, academic and research outcomes for all members of the university community.

What can the sector do about this?

In 2017, Universities UK published the #StepChange framework, encouraging leaders across the higher education sector to take a whole-university approach in response to student mental health. Many universities are now developing their response to Step Change. Our research demonstrates that academics need to be a priority area within the development of an institution’s mental health strategy and their wider organisational strategy.

Academics are often a student’s key point of contact, and this interaction can significantly impact on a student’s experience. For a university to progress towards a whole-university approach, they must ensure the role of academics in relation to student mental health is functioning well. But, just as importantly, the student support services must be properly resourced. If they are not, then supporting students falls on academics who are not trained to provide this level of support.

Recognise and define academics’ role in regard to student mental health

  1. There is a need for the sector to debate and define the role of academics in responding to student mental health and consider this within a whole-university approach.
  2. Academics should be supported to understand, maintain and communicate appropriate boundaries to their students, both online and on campus.
  3. Universities must recognise the unavoidable role academics are now playing in responding to students’ mental health by creating open spaces for discussion and learning.
  4. The time and cost of supporting students’ needs to be appropriately recognised by universities.
  5. Academics should receive more comprehensive support and training to appropriately and effectively signpost students to relevant services.

Student support services

  1. Student Services need to be resourced and supported to provide a comprehensive, effective and diverse service provision for students.
  2. Universities must address the gaps that exist between academics and student services, developing overlapping interests, principles, culture and language.
  3. To ensure regular communication between academics and student services, universities must increase opportunities for structured engagement, regular contact and shared sense of purpose.

Support for academics

  1. Academics should have clearer, more visible access to support for themselves and assistance to develop their skills. Universities should seek to develop open cultures in which the wellbeing of the whole academic community can be positively addressed.
  2. Academics need adequate preparation for their role, including training specifically designed for the role academics play and delivered in a range of accessible formats.
  3. Academic managers must be equipped with the skills and resources to be able to support their teams to respond to student mental health needs appropriately, while maintaining boundaries.
  4. Universities should consider the role of the curriculum in supporting the development of good student wellbeing and learning.