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University mental health and wellbeing services – what’s next?

How can universities keep up with student expectations for support services? - Panel discussion at the Higher Education Conference 2021

The past year has proved the importance of university mental health services in uncertain times. A recent report from the digital charity Mental Health Innovations revealed that the university experience had been far from rosy for many students, who have had to navigate the usual stressors and anxieties now compounded in the landscape of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The study revealed that 61% of students who contacted the free 24/7 messaging support service Shout 85258 were anxious about the upcoming university years. Worries about the future impact of the pandemic are still widespread, with 30% anxious about future restrictions and 27% about disruption to in-person teaching.

Figures suggesting an overall decline in student mental health and wellbeing due to Covid and increasing demand for mental health services, most of those surveyed expressed a desire for university-based mental health support to meet their needs.

On Thursday, 7th October, at the Higher Education Conference 2021, Tribal joined a panel to discuss moving on from the pandemic, rebuilding wellbeing services, and understanding how to avoid a future strain to services. The panellists were:

  • Dr Josephine NwaAmaka Bardi, Senior Lecturer and Student Engagement Lead & Founder of RAMHHE, London South Bank University
  • Sarah Campbell, Mental Health Advisor, University of Arts London
  • Dr David McIlroy, Reader and Principal Lecturer in the Psychology of Individual Differences in Education, Liverpool John Moores University
  • Jay Howard, Solution Lead - Student Welfare, Tribal Group

Navigating the new normal and meeting student expectations

The discussion started around universities adapting quickly and offering a blended support approach during the pandemic and whether this will continue.

Jay Howard, Solution Lead - Student Welfare, Tribal Group started,

“Institutions have had to adapt a lot throughout the pandemic. I don’t think the adaptability, or the blended learning approach, will go away any time soon. Student expectations around accessing mental health services are changing, a lot more students want support outside of standard office hours and at weekends, and we need to look at how we can support this.”

The latest insights report from Student Space, run by Student Minds also highlighted this, in June 2021, 5 pm-9 pm became the most popular four-hour period with 29.1% of texts received.

There was a consensus that there is a tremendous amount of appreciation for those members of staff that are providing support no matter the time. The panel praised the sector’s quick response in taking support services online during the pandemic, with support teams having to upskill in using technology to deliver services virtually.

Dr David McIlroy, Reader and Principal Lecturer in the Psychology of Individual Differences in Education, Liverpool John Moores University said,

“Staff have done amazingly well during the period of the lockdown. The amount of training they have put in, the amount of extra work they have put in, and the amount of support they have offered students has been amazing.”

Jay continued,

“Technology plays a large role in being able to achieve the expectations of students. There is a lot of pressure on staff, especially with the number of tools and processes at play.”

Sarah Campbell, Mental Health Advisor, University of Arts London, said,

“The amount of platforms and technology staff have to navigate to continue to support students must be reviewed at a university-wide level, to support students more effectively. Systems should be consolidated and integrated with third-party support if possible. It’s very prevalent to see that everyone has responded very quickly, but everyone has responded individually at the same time, and with so many different platforms, it can become confusing.”

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One attendee in the audience commented,

“It is worth also considering the impact of 24/7 access to technology on mental health, and expectations of staff availability through technology. For the past 18 months, there has been little time to switch off from digital systems. The digital world contributes to increased mental health issues; perhaps there is a fine balance between technology empowering and impacting.”

The panel agreed that there is a delicate balance but that students want to access support services at a time and through a channel that works for them. Dr. David McIlroy added,

“Students are expecting choice on how and what time to access services and appreciate the value of immediate online tools they can access at their fingertips.”

Jay concluded,

“It’s vital students have options. A blended model must continue. Meeting expectations, students are open-minded if you’re visible and upfront, and set expectations. Students should have a voice in developing student support services, so they help with setting expectations.”

Inclusive technology

Conversations led to discussing how we can ensure technology is inclusive and available to all. Jisc’s CEO, Dr Paul Feldman, provided a comment on this subject in their news item ‘We must embrace technology to make education easier, fairer and more inclusive,’

“Accessible technology can make a critical difference to the student experience, especially for disabled students who haven’t previously had equality of opportunity. It’s time to shift towards a digitally-backed education ecosystem that meets everyone’s needs”.

Sarah started,

“Universities can now do things by video if students want to stay remote due to mental or physical illness. They can still stay present with us and engage in real-time. The apps that are currently being developed are becoming more user-friendly for those that are neurodiverse. Technology plays a huge role but still has a long way to go with regards to inclusion.”

Dr. David McIlroy highlighted,

“Recording sessions is instrumental. Many of us are trying to deliver live sessions while recording them. Some people pre-record their sessions for anyone that feels at a disadvantage; they can access the recordings and stay on track with their learning”.

Allowing students to learn in their own environment at a time that is more suitable to their needs is useful but can raise concerns for institutions as there is a reduced amount of face-to-face interaction.

Sarah added,

“To continue to be inclusive is allowing students to have a choice on how they want to be contacted. Whether it’s a meeting in person or remote or thinking of other ways to communicate, that’s very important because everyone needs an opportunity.”

Dr. Josephine NwaAmaka Bardi, Senior Lecturer and Student Engagement Lead & Founder of RAMHHE, London South Bank University, said,

“In a previous university, we recruited Student Support Volunteers to run mental health campaigns and offer engagement between students. We also had Lecturers, academics, and non-academics attend events to create a whole university conversation and make everyone aware. If there is an inclusive space between staff and students available, it’s easier to communicate.”

Sarah added,

“We need to keep listening to student voices. We are going to learn the most from students about finding the balance. Student Minds are advocating for students and doing this excellently."

Jay said,

“We need to research further into how we layout curriculum, the overall effect on mental health and how it can affect the overall grade. We must look at life skills obtained during the blended work model. Tribal are a proud partner of Student Minds and by supporting them and sharing knowledge and insights we aim to develop our solutions to prioritise student mental health and a whole university approach. The insights Student Minds are able to share, especially the data from Student Space is invaluable."

International student support

Conversations soon turned to the wellbeing of international students. The latest insights and data from Tribal i-graduate’s International Student Barometer reveal a significant drop in overall happiness. In 2019 international students stated that 91% were either happy or very happy with their life at the institution at this stage in the year. In 2020 this has declined to 83% meaning 17% of students are either unhappy or very unhappy.

Sarah started,

“Students want to see themselves represented. If students feel represented, they’re more likely to approach student services and wellbeing services as a whole. Staff need to be aware that students will present differently depending on their backgrounds and life experience. Showing sensitivity, staff have to seek further information and ask questions if a student is showing signs of hardship and cultural differences.”

David added,

“I often hear students using the phrase, ‘safe space’, and wanting to be in a safe space, where they’re welcomed and not judged. Students crave a feeling of security and belonging.”

International students can be particularly at risk of integrating with an institution especially if studying online and they require additional support. It was agreed that institutions could enhance all students’ engagement by incorporating international or multicultural perspectives into course and assessment design and creating opportunities for students of diverse backgrounds to interact.

The role of technology in empowering student support and wellbeing services

With over a quarter of UK students experiencing a change in their mental wellbeing when beginning their higher education journey - for the worse. Students with good mental wellbeing are more likely to stay in education, academically succeed, and enjoy the experience.

Strides are being taken towards collaboration and digital developments, including intuitive platforms and chatbot technology; it’s clear there are major advancements to enable better student wellbeing.

Jay started,

“Technology has a huge responsibility in empowering student support and wellbeing services. With the amount of technology students are using, it’s about aligning the technology and the services available. The concept of creating a safe space in technology is also fundamental.”

Technology can provide students with self-service knowledge bases, automate responses from support teams, and provide students with the ability to create and manage their own enquiries and cases. Can tech reduce the workload for staff and increase efficiency? Sarah added,

“Many staff have felt burnt out trying to support students during covid; some staff have felt unsupported themselves. Everyone has had different experiences, depending on the university.”

Jay continued,

“Over the last two years, we’ve seen a trend of personal and academic tutors getting involved in signposting services to the wellbeing teams. There’s a recent trend of having a wellbeing tutor working alongside the academic tutor to support and ensure staff are not burnt out. Staff cannot be too many things to too many people. Staff need support with operational intelligence, to understand what tools are available and how to use the technology and data to grow their services and to take some pressure away.”

Final thoughts

In summary, it’s clear to see that technology is driving more inclusivity and efficiency in higher education support services.. However, it is clear that there is work to do in ensuring software is integrated well and not overwhelming for support service staff to manage. The panel commended the higher education sector on how quickly they were able to adapt and deliver their services via a blended approach and this will continue.

Jay added a final comment,

“It’s important we don’t stagnate the development by going back to normal. We need to make sure the approaches ‘on paper’ match the technology available.”

What is the next step for universities? Will AI, automation and 24/7 access to support be the future and is this what students expect?

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