The issue of mental health is rising high on the higher education policy agenda across the country. The harsh realities of poor mental health were brought home this week at the University of Buckingham’s Festival of Higher Education. Yesterday, we heard from James Murray, the father of Bristol student Ben Murray, who took his own life just four weeks ago after suffering in silence from mental health issues. We also heard from Nancy Tucker, student and author of the book, That Was When People Started to Worry, talking openly about her own personal battles with eating disorders and poor mental health.
Having this conversation is important. In 2016, HEPI published a report by student Poppy Brown, exploring The invisible problem? Improving students’ mental health, to make headway in this area. It is nevertheless vital that we look at the whole university community and recognise that poor mental health can be as prevalent among university staff as it is among students.
Just this week, the Times Higher Education has run a story on the suicide of a Cardiff University lecturer, reporting an ‘unmanageable workload’. In March this year, HEPI ran a blog asking ‘Who supports academics?’ after research by the charity Student Minds revealed just how much academics are struggling under the burden of supporting students with mental health problems.
But it is not just staff working with students who are feeling the strain. Research staff are not exempt from mental health issues either, with high levels of stress caused not just by the demands of the job, but also by the instability of short-term research contracts and uncertain funding opportunities. In some instances, poor relationships with supervisors and workplace bullying can also be to blame.
On 4 July, London Metropolitan University is hosting a free, one-day conference dedicated to highlighting the issues faced by staff in higher education. The conference – entitled Staff Wellbeing in Higher Education: Precepts, Practices and Potentialities in Challenging Times – will provide an opportunity to discuss different perceptions of wellbeing and how universities are responding to the need to support staff across the sector.
As Director of Policy and Advocacy at HEPI, and as a former early career academic myself, I am fully supportive of this initiative and am delighted to be chairing a panel at the event. If you are interested in attending, you can book your free place here. Together, we can hopefully go some way to formulating a good practice framework to support university staff with mental health issues.
As the pace of policy change picks up in the sector, it is important we do not lose sight of the need to create and maintain ‘positive and mindful’ universities, both for staff and for students. Discussing mental health issues openly and finding ways to tackle them is just one way to start to make meaningful progress in this area.