‘Student mental health not our responsibility’, says British government

In response to a letter enquiring into how the government is ensuring that students receive adequate support, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills advised that the responsibility for determining student support rests with educational institutions.

The department’s response, received by email on July 18th, stated: “HEIs are autonomous bodies, independent from the Government.  They have legal responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010 to support disabled students in higher education, including those with mental health conditions but it is for the HEIs themselves to determine what welfare and counselling services they need to provide to their students to offer that support.”

The letter had been sent to David Willetts, minister for universities and science, and called on the government to provide funding for a national body to monitor student support and advise institutions, in light of the recent increase in student suicides, and an NUS survey earlier this year. The department replied, “Whilst we have noted and appreciate your suggestion, this is not something we can consider at the present time.”

The response also noted that, despite the independence of HEI’s, the government was providing a “comprehensive package of financial support to ensure that Higher Education (HE) students with disabilities, including those with mental health problems, receive the best possible support”. According to the department, this amounted to £109.2m being allocated to English students claiming Disabled Students Allowance in (2010/2011), and £13m to HEIs (2011/2012).

The total amount allocated in 2011/2012 by HEFCE to FE & HE institutions was £6507m.

Canada: Huge survey into student mental health forces action

In a survey of more than 30,000 post-secondary school students in Canada, across 34 institutions, 9.5% of respondents stated that they had “seriously considered taking their own lives in the past year”, The Province and The Star reported. A guide has been released to help institutions take action.

The survey, which was led by the Canadian Organization of University and College Health, also indicated that 89% of respondents reported feeling overwhelmed by “all they had to do”, 54% reported feeling hopeless during the last 12 months, and 64% had felt lonely. The survey findings echo a similar survey from NUS in the United Kingdom, in which 13% of the 1,200 respondents reported having had suicidal thoughts.

Following the release of the survey, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and the Canadian Association of Colleges and University Student Services (CACUSS) has launched a guide to help institutions take action to address student mental health using a “systemic” approach. The guide is based on three years of work, and input from hundreds of professionals and students.

Openness By Whom And Of What?

In preparation for a talk last week entitled, ‘Mental Health: How Do We Encourage Openness And Meet Higher Demand For Services?’, there were two questions that seemed particularly topical. The first was, should we encourage openness around mental health if services can’t meet demand?

I had put the title of the talk to my Twitter followers, and one student suggested that we shouldn’t encourage openness if services are inadequate because we’ll “just be letting students down”. The assumption seems to be that the only reason for openness is to encourage use of services; this might be one reason, but if we’re talking about openness in a general sense, then there are many more that are just as important — some of which follow.

As another Twitter follower noted, there is a need for more understanding of self-care – something which openness ought to encourage through the sharing of information and resources. Openness can also improve the fit between students and services by educating students about the most appropriate service for their needs. Openness means services get more of those most in need, and less of those that would benefit from other services or that can figure out a solution themselves.

If openness increases demand for services, it also puts more pressure on those in a position to fund services. More shameful than an inability to meet demand is the concealment of insufficiencies, because it lifts pressure from those tasked with allocating resources.

I noted in my talk that the term ‘openness’, as used in the context of student mental health, needs to be unpacked. There are different things we might be open about – namely our mental health, or mental health in general; and there are is openness with different people – our friends & family, or institutions & authority figures. Then there is, of course, the matter of who’s being open. In this case, we’re mostly talking about the need for students to be open, but it’s equally as important that institutions are being open so that students can make informed decisions.

It’s the under-appreciated complexity of openness that leads into the second question: Why should students be open? (I’ve addressed this question before in the context of disclosure rates.)

Since the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ report on student mental health in 2011, there have been calls for institutions to be more honest and open about their support provision and commitment to students’ welfare by publishing a formal and publicly available mental health policy. (Annie Grant of MWBHE is currently surveying universities to find out how many have policies in place, and hopefully the results will be available before the end of the year.) The most important reason for such a document is that, without one, it’s very difficult for institutions to be held to account; not just by those outside of the institution but by themselves.

A mental health policy is also a statement of intent and a commitment to being open and transparent. If institutions are not being open about what they can and cannot do, it’s hardly surprising that their members might also want to withhold information about themselves.

The powerpoint presentation from my talk can be downloaded here, and an action plan for building a ‘whole-institution approach to wellbeing’ is available here.

In Praise Of Student Support Staff

At a Student Welfare event I was speaking at yesterday, I tried to catch a student support advisor after one of the sessions. She had left the room swiftly, and was on the phone in the corridor outside. There was a look of concern on her face, and at first I wondered if it was a logistics issue – perhaps a son or daughter that needed picking up from school, or some other personal matter. But it wasn’t anything like that. She was phoning to check on a student at her university that was having a particularly tough time.

I don’t often meet someone who shows this level of compassion and concern for others, but when I do, it’s invariably a member of student support staff. There has been an increase in the number of articles examining student mental health and questioning whether universities are doing enough, but very few of these have recognised the extraordinary work done by existing support staff.

One of the things I’m most proud of from my time at NUS-USI earlier this year was the groundwork we laid for an Open Your Mind awards programme. We wanted to recognise not just things done by students to promote mental health, but also the tireless work done by support staff to help thousands upon thousands of students every year. It wasn’t that we thought staff would want the recognition (they are too selfless for that) but we hoped maybe it would help others to see why student support is so valuable.

I don’t know why support staff don’t get more recognition. Maybe because they don’t make a fuss about things. Maybe because others think they are only ‘doing their job’. Anyone who has spent time with support staff will know that this is not the case, and that they give a huge amount to others. Nobody gets involved in student support for their own interests – they do it because they care, deeply.

Campaigners urge government to act on children’s wellbeing

A new UK mental health charity has called for more to be done to support children’s mental health after a YouGov poll indicated that one in five children show symptoms of depression, the BBC reports. The story follows increasing concerns (which we reported here) about young people’s mental health in the UK and internationally.

Mindfull, an online mentoring and counselling service for 11-17 year olds launched today by the BeatBullying Group, has urged that mental health needs to be added to school curriculums, but there are question marks about where the expertise to deliver such classes could come from. Since 2000, schools in the UK have been expected to teach children about mental health through PSHE, but the program has been criticised for neglecting mental health, and an Ofsted report in May noted that PSHE teachers were lacking “subject-specific training and support.”

There are a number of British schools – notably, Wellington College – that deliver emotional wellbeing classes, and in 2007, 90 teachers in schools across three regions were trained to deliver classes in emotional resilience as part of a pilot programme backed by the Department for Education – although it was not rolled out beyond the pilot. The government is yet to make further commitments to funding mental health training in schools.

The YouGov poll, which, according to reports, also indicates that a third of young people have considered suicide, raises questions about the causes of children’s mental health problems. Earlier this year, Peter Tait, head of Sherborne Preparatory School in Dorset, suggested that students’ wellbeing was being damaged by excessive emphasis on grades. It’s an issue that’s being recognised in other countries. Last week it was reported that educational reforms in China are set to shift emphasis away from testing over concerns about the impact that narrow methods of evaluation were having on students’ mental health.

In 2005 the UK’s Department for Education introduced SEAL in primary schools, which encourages a “whole school approach to promoting social and emotional skills”, but a 2010 report from the Department of Education showed mixed results, and concerns have been raised recently that the government’s emphasis on exam results has been pressuring schools to give up SEAL.

Note: Free resources for teachers wanting to deliver mental health classes are available through Young Minds, here. Children and parents concerned about mental health can also access information and helpline details through Young Minds. Further resources and information about mental health, and helplines, are available through Mind

‘Employability, employability, employability’

In a 2001 speech, Tony Blair famously underlined his aim of getting more young people through higher education by listing his top three priorities for government as, “education, education, education”. Twelve years later, and with the recession having taken its toll on the ‘widening access’ agenda, political priorities for young people seem to be shifting.

The UK government has long sold the value of a university education on the evidence that graduates get paid more than non-graduates, but the figures have been criticised for being skewed by a small percentage of graduates that are on disproportionately high salaries.

It could also be argued that graduate salaries are higher due to factors outside of university; for instance, graduates may be more likely than non-graduates to have access to financial and professional support through their parents – something that can be particularly useful for breaking into certain industries, such as the media. The British public seems to agree that social status can be a key factor, with a recent poll indicating that almost two-thirds believe that ‘who you know’ matters more than ‘what you know’. 

Skepticism about graduate salary statistics, coupled with a rise in graduate unemployment, has driven the issue of employability into public consciousness, and, since 2007, Google searches for ’employability’ in the UK have doubled. There have been inevitable calls for more jobs to be created, but there has also been a growing argument – spurred by comments from recruiters – that educational institutions and their students need to focus on cultivating ‘soft skills’ such as those involving communication, teamwork, and assertiveness.

Last week, a Guardian live chat explored the ways in which the higher education sector is responding. According to the Work Foundation, the demand for soft skills is being ramped up by the shift towards a ‘knowledge-based’ economy. To address this, universities are increasingly looking to strengthen ties with businesses to create internship opportunities, promoting extra-curricular activities, and offering soft skills training and resources.

Entrepreneurship also continues to gain support within institutions, with recognition that, regardless of whether businesses are actually built, enterprise skills such as assertiveness and leadership are valuable to employers.

But as the employability agenda grows, there are some tensions. Whilst an emphasis on employability might benefit job prospects, there are concerns that the ‘corporatisation‘ of higher education will squeeze students down narrow career paths and detract from the pursuit of knowledge and personal development for its own sake.

Objections seem to be fading though, with Ferdinand von Prondzynski, Vice Chancellor for Robert Gordon University, recently writing on his blog that, “‘Knowledge for its own sake’ is no better as a pedagogical statement than ‘spinach for its own sake’ would be as a nutritional one”.