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Enough policy already; let’s get real about student mental health and wellbeing

  • 19 June 2018
  • By Tim Daplyn

This guest blog has been kindly written for us by Tim Daplyn, Managing Director at Red Brick Research – an agency focussed on delivering strategic insight into student life for universities, students’ unions, accommodation providers and the private sector. He is fond of metaphors and enjoys an argument.

An odd title for a HEPI blog post perhaps, but a reflection of the frustration I feel at the current approach to debate on this subject – lots of heat and noise, bravado and good intent, but too little appreciation of the nuance of the subject and the expertise and knowledge that already exists in the sector amongst service managers and student-facing practitioners.

I don’t mean to suggest for a moment that policy is not important. Indeed, HEPI’s own Diana Beech will be sharing her invaluable policy insight with those attending our Student Mental Health and Wellbeing conference in Leicester this Thursday.

However, there seems to be a desire within the sector, and its senior leadership, to find a ‘silver bullet’, a ‘knockout blow’ or ‘game changer’. This is a dangerously crude attitude with which to approach a complex and nuanced challenge.

A lack of nuance

As one illustration, I offer Sam Gyimah’s recently re-stated idea that universities should act in loco parentis to their students. I’ll concede that his most recent re-statement of this idea was qualified to issues relating to mental health alone. However, setting aside the fact that selective loco parentis isn’t really ‘a thing’, neither is it a solution of any kind.

Like most of the ‘idea balloons’ of which this sector is so fond, it is shiny, attractive and apparently significant but ultimately fragile and largely empty. To mix metaphors, it packages up a clarification of university responsibility with a mechanism for the legal sharing of data inside so much intellectual cardboard, it could have been delivered by Amazon.

Ideas like this do have a role in generating some debate and encouraging ‘big thinkers’ to think ‘big thoughts’. That’s great, but I argue that we need to listen more to the expert leaders we already have on the ground – those service managers and professionals who work with students and mental health issues every day, and better comprehend the subtleties of the challenges faced.

More haste, less speed

Given the media coverage of recent tragic suicides at some institutions and the rise of mental health issues up the higher education policy agenda, it is understandable that leaders at some universities have reacted with urgency – and dare I say panic? Unfortunately, some are doing so with little interest or regard for evidence, or the fragile emergence of best practice.

Instead, diktats will be issued to hire vast swathes of counsellors, to take over those student services which remain in the hands of students’ unions, and to seize control of residence life programmes in privately-run accommodation in an attempt to ‘take control’ of the situation.

This is particularly ironic given there is plenty of evidence to suggest that universities are not always best placed to care for students’ wellbeing. For example, data from this year’s National Student Housing Survey of over 33,000 students from across the UK clearly shows that privately-managed student accommodation delivers significantly better wellbeing impact for students than university managed accommodation. Indeed, fewer than two-thirds of students believe their university cares about their wellbeing, compared to over 70% who believe their accommodation provider does.

When it comes to other providers of student services and support, our work with students’ unions consistently demonstrates their critical role in fostering a sense of community and belonging – a key requirement of wellbeing. Yet because they are often not great at demonstrating their own impact, they remain widely under-valued and under-funded by their institutions.

Real leadership

Across all our research work for hundreds of universities, students’ unions and student accommodation providers around the world, we have frequently found evidence to raise concerns about the issue of student mental health and the gaps in services and support provided. However, it is too often everyone’s second priority, no-one’s first; seen as important, but tangential to the core business of a university, union or accommodation provider.

Sometimes, however, we stumble across a genuine leader – someone who is willing to work outside the core business of their organisation, to cut across established ways of working and to ruffle a few feathers in pursuit of better outcomes for students. They see the strategic context but also have time to understand the nuance. These are the leaders we are bringing together on Thursday – to understand the important policy context, of course, but also to share new research and learn about emerging best practice on-the-ground in the UK and internationally. They understand that it is by sharing and collaborating, not controlling, that we will achieve better outcomes faster for students.

Mental health AND wellbeing

The debate on parity for mental health has been running for some time in this country, and it is clear that we have a long way to go. A good starting point would be to get our heads around the idea that mental health is not just one thing with one solution or ‘care path’. We need to look further up-stream and consider how we create environments that promote wellbeing.

We need to think about how we nudge student towards a wider range of beneficial interventions before a crisis arises. While counselling might be the right intervention for some, others would have benefitted earlier from better opportunities to form friendships, or to take more exercise. Still more might benefit from improved nutrition, learning how to manage competing social pressures, or getting more sleep.

Universities are not, and cannot, be experts in all these areas – they need to make better use of the range of experience and expertise that already exists. This means engaging more openly and honestly with their own students’ unions, with accommodation providers, with charities, and with the private sector. It also means developing a more holistic and refined understanding of the range and diversity of student mental health and wellbeing issues.

There’s no doubt that more research is needed internationally, and Global Student Accommodation’s (GSA) new ‘Student Wellbeing Matters’ report to be launched at the conference on Thursday is a significant contribution to the international effort. But while research is important, the right approach for service providers is neither to wait for indisputable evidence, nor to wade in with crude and damaging mono-solutions that suck oxygen away from other aspects of wellbeing. We need to fund and support a wide range of initiatives and providers, and be prepared to learn and improve as we go. There is no silver bullet.

1 comment

  1. Simone van der Vos says:

    This is one of the few articles I have seen that mentions “healthy, balanced lifestyle” as being a contributing factor to potentially nipping in the bud potential mental health and well being issues. Whilst it may not be a solution for many there is no doubt that good sleep, a balanced diet and a good walk in fresh air makes us more relaxed and prepared for the day ahead.

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