Asking for help with your mental health needs to feel as simple as saying you’re trying to find the right book in the library.” Rosie Tressler, CEO of Student Minds
The number of students at university experiencing mental health issues is increasing exponentially, year after year. With tragic outcomes making the headlines, the growing crisis is not ‘new news’. However, the distressing statistics, trends and experiences revealed in the State of the Nation report published earlier this year, shine a spotlight on the true extent of the problem.
Providing student mental health support services is far from the sole responsibility of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). Although demands on the NHS, particularly in recent years, have resulted in many HEIs having to step up - perhaps more than they should. Whilst there are some excellent examples of universities embracing a whole-university approach to mental health and wellbeing that includes transforming their support services, there remain too many instances where students are slipping through the safety nets of institutions. These are the cases that can damage a university’s reputability; sometimes, irrevocably.
A university’s track record for mental health support is now, according to recent UCAS findings, a general shortlisting search criteria for more than a quarter of all applicants. One in five students will also research the specific support available for their existing mental health conditions, before they apply. Encouragingly, as many as one in four students are also disclosing their mental health conditions on UCAS applications and requesting support from the outset of their journey with their HEI. In fact, over the last decade, UCAS has recorded a 450% rise in the number of mental health declarations; likely due to the change in culture and attitudes towards accessing mental health diagnosis in the UK during this period.
As a sector we know how important it is to eradicate outdated stigmas and meet the needs of all students. We recognise that, collectively, more needs to be done to ensure there is an awareness of the provision of services available and to remove any perception that opportunities could be restricted if an existing condition is disclosed.”
UCAS Chief Executive, Clare Marchant
The UCAS findings indicate that a university’s approach to student mental health is increasingly likely to impact on the current and future student pipeline. It’s why the primary recommendation from the State of the Nation report is to consider a sector initiative such as Student Minds’ University Mental Health Charter or University UK’s Step-change: Mentally Healthy Universities to help shape the institution’s long-term policy and action plans. Joining is a proactive and public first step that all HEIs can make to demonstrate commitment to addressing the full welfare agenda.
Yet wherever your university is on its journey to improving mental health outcomes, marketing your support provision is now considered one of the five key elements of any successful university recruitment strategy. Marketing and recruitment teams should consider:
- Promoting the HEI’s commitment to making mental health a strategic priority and spotlighting the progress and improvements being made.
- Embedding wellbeing messaging in the heart of your marketing, recruitment and onboarding campaigns.
- Developing tailored campaigns specifically for high-risk student groups such as prospective students, international students, Covid-19 intakes, those who identify as male, and those with any disability.
- Sharing self-service wellbeing and mental health support resources with prospective students.
- Detailing needs at the recruitment/enrolment stage and ensuring this information is stored centrally, so that the student does not need to input the information more than once.
- Signposting resources, such as managing anxiety, ahead of applicant interviews and exams.
- Ensuring wellbeing and mental health support is a key component of the enrolment and onboarding process.
Of course, it’s not just applicants that will benefit from mental health and wellbeing campaigns. Promoting your support services regularly to all students and university staff will be key to your retention programmes. Engaging the wider university community in conversations about wellbeing will also help to spread the word about the HEI’s commitment to nurturing positive mental health. Opportunities to engage the university-wide community include:
- Teaming with the Student Union and other student-led societies to support their efforts and help promote all wellbeing initiatives,
- Involving parents in the conversation by providing a safe, secure and systemised way to share their concerns or feedback,
- ‘Starting the Conversation’ with schools in the community – with 50% of mental illness developing by age 14 this could have long-lasting impact on future student pipeline,
- Inviting mental health service providers from outside the university community to contribute to and shape initiatives, and
- Collaborating with other universities to share experiences and best practices and/or establish cross-sector working groups or support forums for staff.
It’s worth noting that collaborating with mental health specialists when developing new wellbeing programmes is key to ensuring that the university’s investments are compassionate, appropriate and fit for purpose. There are a number of recent examples of universities being publicly shamed for getting the sentiment and/or timing of a campaign wrong, which was deemed worse than doing nothing at all.
Indeed, there has been a sizeable backlash from HE students across the UK to mental health support in universities that is considered a ‘tick box exercise’ or a ‘one off initiative’, rather than a strategic imperative that will ultimately create competitive advantage that could make or break student recruitment drives.
Just earlier this year, a student group launched the HUMEN University Mental Health League Table, ranking 80 UK universities which have over 10,000 students each, giving them scores in five areas:
- Student satisfaction – including overall mental health support, quality of mental health services
- Engagement – including proportion of students who would use university services
- Awareness – proportion of students who know where to find help at university
- Financing – universities and mental health budget per student
- Provision – including staff training, designated members of staff and wait times
The league table was designed to encourage universities to consider mental health services in the same way that they do academic performance, and to try to be at the top of the table by investing in creating excellence in mental health support.
Interestingly, universities that failed to respond to HUMEN were marked negatively in the league table. This brings us full circle to one of the most significant findings of the State of the Nation Report, which revealed only a small percentage of UK universities are able to accurately report on the number of students accessing their mental health support services. Even fewer are able to report the numbers accessing counselling or further counselling. For the first time, the sector-wide issue with mental health data, analysis and reporting could now directly impact a university’s student pipeline. Which is perhaps why we’ve seen a sudden surge in interest in our Student Support & Wellbeing CRM solution as university leaders seek not just to better manage caseloads, optimise support resources and streamline the targeted delivery of services, but also:
- Accurately capture and record mental health data and data about the services provided to students that disclose and request support,
- Ensure their data is categorised in granular detail wherever possible, and
- Make the data available at the touch of a button, to respond to FOI requests, but more importantly to aid the university’s decision-making on mental health policy.
Watch the video to see what Tribal’s Student Support and Wellbeing solution could do for your staff and students