‘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”.

Education reforms in China set to shift focus to “whole person”

prominent scholar in China has reported that the Chinese Ministry of Education is set to introduce a “major reform” to shift emphasis in education away from academic tests. The announcement, which comes just weeks after concerns were raised about the mental health of students in China, promises to “broaden” evaluation methods to fully recognise the health and wellbeing needs of students and “support development as a whole person”.

In a recent survey of 2,151 students in north-east China, almost 50% reported suffering from mental health problems. Last month, Lin Guiru, a mental health advisor for the Ministry of Education, told the China Daily, “The ultimate goal of education should be the cultivation of personality, ideals, an outlook on life and values, good human relationships and communication skills. Unfortunately, our education system places too much emphasis on the cultivation of skills that concentrate on the trivial and neglect the essentials.”

Guiru also emphasised the impact that global economic issues were having on young people, and spoke about work that was underway in universities to “popularise knowledge of mental health” and train students in psychological skills.

The planned education reforms involve the introduction of an evaluation framework encompassing five areas, which include ‘moral development, academic development, health (psychological and physical), wider interests, and academic burdens’. According to Yong Zhao, the quality of education will also be judged based on levels of student engagement, boredom, anxiety, and happiness.

There have been growing calls for similar reforms in the United Kingdom. Writing for the Independent earlier this year, Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, warned that urgent measures need to be taken to curb the rise in student suicides: “A key job, not only of schools but also universities, is to educate the whole person, to help him or her live an autonomous and meaningful life. It is no longer acceptable in the 21st century for universities or schools to hold up their hands and say, “We do exams only: get the rest elsewhere!”

In 2005, SEAL, a scheme designed to promote social and emotional skills was rolled out in British schools, but last month a professor at the University of Manchesterraised concerns that schools were currently being pressured by the government to drop the programmes.

Resilient Youth: Using Psychology To Prevent A ‘Lost Generation’

This article was originally published with the Huffington Post.

Switching on the news last night, I heard a young graduate telling a reporter, “I’ve done everything that society told me to do, and I’m still not finding employment.” As his words trailed off, the despair in his voice seemed to capture a generation that’s feeling let down and unsure where to turn. Increasingly, recent surveys from NUS and The Prince’s Trust suggest, the blame seems to be turning inwards.

There is research showing that in previous periods of high youth unemployment, those affected continued to be hampered professionally and socially long after the recession ended – a phenomenon that has been described as the ‘scarring effect’. It’s data like this that gives some weight to the otherwise melodramatic claim that today’s young people will go down in history as a ‘lost generation’.

One explanation for the scarring effect is the psychological impact of unemployment. Research links unemployment with a perceived loss of control, and what some psychologists call ‘learned helplessness’ . Feelings of helplessness are a predictor of depression . They are also linked to decreased work performance – a correlation that exists not just in the western world, but globally .

There might be good reason for young people to feel helpless. 75 million young people around the world are out of work, the value of a degree has tumbled, and the so-called ‘scarring effect’ suggests that history isn’t on their side. But in the last recession psychological research and interventions were less developed. And what the latest research tells us is that helplessness is not inevitable and it can be reversed .

When a young american psychologist called Martin Seligman was researching depression in the late 1960’s, he found that if people were subjected to repeated and uncontrollable stressors then they would often come to resign themselves to their plight, remaining inactive even when opportunities to change their circumstances arose – a condition which he called ‘learned helplessness’. What he also found was that whilst some acquired this condition, others seemed to be more resistant. When he looked for distinctions between the two groups, he discovered that they had different ways of explaining the source of stress; those that were more resistant tended to see the stressor as confined and temporary.

The findings were consistent with assumptions underlying the emerging field of cognitive behavioural therapy, and Seligman hypothesised that if he could train people to develop a more optimistic ‘explanatory style’ using ideas from CBT then he could teach them to be more resilient to stress. His ideas gained support and helped establish a new field of research known as ‘positive psychology’, which argued that wellbeing is a legitimate focus for researchers and policymakers. This ‘wellbeing movement’ now spans psychology, economics, and politics, led by organisations such as Action for Happiness and the New Economics Foundation.

Governments and businesses have picked up on the science and are transforming it into policy and interventions. Wellbeing programs have been introduced in certain schools – Wellington College, for instance, holds wellbeing classes for its students, and school PSHE programs are teaching emotional skills. But despite graduate employers criticising a lack of soft skills, wellbeing programs have not (as Anthony Seldon of Wellington College notes) been rolled out for students in higher education.

Given that educational institutions are supposed to be at the cutting edge of science, it’s surprising that most seem to be so far behind the curve, with some members of academia (such as this Vice Chancellor) apparently not believing that learning has much to do with psychology at all.

Counselling services have increasingly taken it upon themselves to offer group sessions on topics such as mindfulness and stress management, but these are limited to the narrow financial and political confines of ‘student support’. Research links a perceived sense of control with job searching strategies , motivation at work , and entrepreneurial potential . As employability and enterprise agendas continue to grow, it’s time that applied psychology was recognised as being crucial not just to student support but to student development.

So how we do this? For starters, universities can work to strengthen ties between support services and careers centres, bringing together mutually-compatible expertise; careers centres can look to offer students psychological training, and the growing number of university programs encouraging extra-curricular personal development can promote and accredit initiatives that help build resilience. The evidence base is out there; let’s apply it.

I’m not suggesting that a focus on applied psychology is a substitute for social action; it won’t solve the issues of inflated tuition fees and struggling jobs markets. But if psychology can help young people to gain an advantage over the problems they are facing then it might be enough to give them a bit more hope for the future. And if we act now, just maybe when we look back in ten or twenty years the young people of today will be known not as a ‘lost’ generation but as a resilient one.

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New mobile app helps young people manage moods

A mobile app designed to help young people manage anxiety levels has been launched in Canada. The Android and iPhone compatible app, called Mindshift, was launched last week to coincide with students’ exam period, CTV News reports.

The app, which is free, aims to help students keep track of their anxiety levels and identify symptoms of anxiety, and contains tips and strategies to hep users “put their negative feelings in perspective”. Strategies featured in the app include breathing exercises and visualisation. According to Anxiety BC, “ Rather than trying to avoid anxiety, you can make an important shift and face it.”

The app was created by Anxiety BC and BC Mental Health & Addiction Services (BCMHAS), organisations both based in the western Canadian province of British Columbia. More than 800 people downloaded the app on its first day of launch,  according to BCMHAS.

Mindshift joins a growing number of ‘happiness apps’ designed to help users track and improve their moods. In 2010, Harvard researchers launched Track Your Happiness, an  app that intermittently notifies users asking them to report how they’re feeling. Last month, the University of Cambridge launched their own mood-tracking app called Emotion Sense which aims to pull together data on emotions and mobile usage.

Optimism about the role that apps can play in promoting emotional wellbeing is far from universal.  Last month, concerns were raised about addictive use of smartphones after research in South Korea linked overuse of smartphones with “psychopathologies in adolescents”.

University students to undergo psychological evaluation

According to the online news website Colombo Page, new students in Sri Lanka may soon be subjected to psychological evaluation. Sri Lanka has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and the measure is thought to be being considered as a way of addressing mental health issues fuelled by increasing academic pressures.

Earlier today, Australian newspaper, The Age, reported on plans to introduce compulsive psychological testing at Australian university, RMIT. According to the report, the tests would form part of a ‘Fitness for Study Panel’ that would evaluate the health of students, and identify whether any students with health conditions were likely to display “behaviour of ‘serious risk’ to the student or others”.

Compulsory psychological evaluations are controversial. Proponents claim that it would help distressed students to receive proper treatment, but there are concerns that such tests undermines civil liberties, and could be used to discriminate unfairly.