We’ve all heard it many times “university years are the best years of your life”, why is it then that student mental health is such an increasingly pressing issue? With newly acquired independence, the stress of academic achievements, and many other factors at play, university students experience higher levels of psychological distress than non-students in the same age group (Student Academic Experience Survey, 2017). One in four students experiences clinical levels of psychological distress and mental ill health (YouGov, 2016), and this issue is especially prevalent in female students and the LGBT+ student population. It should come as no surprise that, with the age of onset of many mental health conditions coinciding with university years, many students have their first experience of a mental health difficulty at this time. Yet, universities don’t seem to be prepared to handle the demand for support. Mental health awareness is limited and students seeking support often face waiting lists of over 4 weeks before being able to see a specialist, which only exacerbates their condition (Independent, 2018). Due to this, Maudsley Learning is trying to work more closely with local partners to develop and deliver a range of training programmes to support students and harness peer support networks
Interestingly, most universities do already offer a wide range of support services to help students experiencing mental health difficulties or distress, however, these services are often overlooked as students are not aware of their existence, and many of the services that students do use are not equipped with the skills necessary to manage difficult conversations around mental health. Where does mental health training fit into all of this?
There are a number of areas that would benefit from more extensive training to best support students. This can range from broad and accessible mental health promotion strategies for all, to specialist training to focus on students experiencing clinical levels of distress. Ideally, through the implementation of mental health training as a whole university approach, universities can build a culture of positive student mental health attitudes and reduce the stigma surrounding these topics. This can be applied to the following:
- Mental health literacy and promotion training: The UK is one of the world’s university education hotspots, attracting hundreds of thousands of non-UK students every year. Many of these students may be from backgrounds and cultures where mental health topics are taboo and ignored, often resulting in a lack of understanding and ability to cope with psychological distress. Moreover, for many students university marks their first experience with independence, which can also be a risk factor if they are unable to manage distress on their own. Thus, university students can greatly benefit from training that focuses on improving students’ understanding of mental health and mental wellbeing, as well as being able to identify signs and symptoms of distress, and the relevant services to help them. Organisations such as Student Minds are already doing this through national campaigns to raise mental health awareness around campuses, as well as providing helpful resources on their site to help support students.
- Mental Health First Aid Training for Personal Tutors: Personal tutors and other academic staff are often the first point of contact for students experiencing distress or difficulties that are impacting their studies. As part of their role, training such as MHFA or other courses focusing on managing mental health can equip them with the necessary skills to assess the situation and respond to the student, as well as signpost to appropriate services and prevent the escalation of the situation by referring students to support at the earliest sign of psychological distress.
- Training students: Most universities provide specialist services for students experiencing more severe levels of psychological distress, however, these are often not as accessible to all students due to high demand and long waiting lists. By providing training to students in various wellbeing roles, such as peer supporters and wellbeing societies, universities can help reduce the burden on specialist services as students with less severe difficulties can receive the support they need through informal methods, whilst students with more severe difficulties can have faster and easier access to specialist support. Similarly, to academic staff training, courses such as MHFA, or other facilitation training can equip students with the skills necessary to effectively signpost, advise, and support their mates.
- Specialist services training: Last but not least, mental health awareness and training can strengthen the skills of specialist services. It is important to understand mental health in higher education in the context of the challenges faced by students. Through the use of simulation or virtual reality, counselling services can be exposed to a range of contexts and situations that will prepare them to respond to various issues that are specific to students, as well as being helpful tools to use within the therapy context as well to help students overcome issues related to anxiety regarding specific situations.
Overall, the benefits of training applied to student mental health contexts are undeniable in theory, but there is more to be done in order to observe them in practice. Through increased mental health awareness and improved skills to manage it at various levels within the institution, universities can promote an environment where students can thrive academically and personally without the disruptions or challenges that may result from poor mental wellbeing. These benefits will extend to all members of the community, from students to staff, as individuals feel more confident in discussing mental health and supporting each other effectively. With the recently increasing focus on student mental health in research, it’s exciting to see where mental health training fits into this and ways in which it can become more widely implemented through a stronger evidence base.