Student reported mental health and well-being has faced a decline over the past years, leading us to the current national student mental health ‘crisis’. This issue has never been more important than during Covid-19, as new and exacerbated mental health needs in the student population are arising from the closure of universities. Coronavirus and the subsequent closure of educational facilities has resulted in students feeling more isolated than ever, as well as struggling with their academic work due to the loss of routine and the continued demands of higher education.

While many efforts have arisen to improve support for students, most initiatives up to date have focused primarily on counselling services and student support staff. Much of the current professional development to improve student mental health does not acknowledge the crucial role of academic staff, who are also often attributed a pastoral role as part of personal tutoring roles, and consequently tend to be at the frontline of student support. Positive support from academic staff, for example, has been found to facilitate academic and social integration for students, as well as improving students’ beliefs about their academic abilities. Additionally, students have noted that specific staff attributes, such as their ability to build a bond with the student, and their authenticity in whether students perceived the tutor cared for them, greatly influence their relationship with their personal tutor (Yale, 2017). This study concluded that poor personal tutoring from academic staff is actually worse than providing no tutoring at all, making an important case for effective and standardised support for academics in their pastoral roles.

The role of Teachers and Academic Staff

Although the evidence up to date highlights the importance of the role academic staff in supporting student mental health, there are still many challenges to overcome to harness this as a source of effective support. The boundaries of the level of support academic staff are supposed to provide is a blurred one, with many feeling that supporting students’ mental health should not fall within their teaching roles, and others lacking clarity about the distinction between their obligations and the university’s obligations in this area. Where academic staff do want to support students, many feel that they lack appropriate training and skills to engage in mental health conversations. For example, some of the areas which academic staff identified as needing training in included learning about common mental health difficulties such as depression and anxiety, signposting to mental health resources internal and external to the university as an alternative to counselling services, when to refer students to services, and how to manage a student who is self-harming (Gulliver et al, 2018).

Furthermore, the impact of these pastoral responsibilities on the mental health and well-being of academic staff is often ignored. Academic staff experience poorer well-being than the general population. Poor mental health in academic staff has escalated over the recent years, which can be partly attributed to increasing workloads and pressures from audit processes such as the Research and Teaching Excellence frameworks, as well as increased pressures around enhancing the student experience (Morrish, 2019). The interaction between staff and students from the perspective of a pastoral role can also contribute to staff burnout, as staff may experience feelings of disappointment and demotivation when faced with disengaged and disrupted students (Salimzadeh, Saroyan & Hall, 2017). This can lead some staff to avoid support focused roles in order to protect their well-being (Watts & Robertson, 2011). Therefore, it is crucial that training targeted at this group considers the mental health and well-being of academics and how this could be affected by their role in supporting students.

Metal Health Training for Teachers and Academic Staff

Maudsley Learning has created a one day masterclass and one-day simulation course to support the training needs of academic staff in response to the Student Minds 2018 report on the role of academics in student mental health. The report found that there is a lack of clarity in the role and responsibility of academics in supporting student mental health, where academics feel that the demands of this role are inevitable but often not recognized. Despite these responsibilities, academics feel that they do not have the necessary structures and support in place to effectively undertake this role in recognising and supporting student mental health, and the uncertainty surrounding this makes it difficult to maintain their boundaries. Following these findings, the mental health masterclass for universities is focused around the needs of a university faculty, personal tutors, and mentors and covers topics such as managing students in distress, signposting, and managing professional boundaries. The mental health simulation course is aimed at staff working in student support services to improve their confidence in assessing and managing various mental health difficulties in students. These courses have been developed to address the student mental health crisis as part of the whole university approach model, where the role of academics is a valued and acknowledged area of support.

Overall, as universities move towards applying a whole university approach to managing and promoting positive mental health and well-being, the crucial role of academics staff, along their specific training and education needs in this area, need to be considered. Through this, we can contribute to creating healthier universities that provide more effective support for students, while improving the capabilities and well-being of academics in the process.

Discover more mental health courses and training tailored specifically to educate about the skills and challenges academic staff would benefit from understanding to support student mental health and well-being.

Article written by Marta Ortega Vega.