'Prioritising student mental health is non-negotiable’ - Sam Gyimah, UK Universities minister
In the highest levels of government, university boardrooms, and across every broadsheet and tabloid, student mental health has arguably become the biggest issue facing universities today. As a new PhD researcher investigating student wellbeing, that’s a challenging context. There are lots of unknowns.
Bristol University has commissioned my scholarship, with Professor David Gunnell (self-harm and suicide), Dr Claire Haworth (population mental health data), and Dr Judi Kidger (mental health in education) at the helm. When it comes to supporting the wellbeing and mental health of its student population, Bristol is not alone in the issues it faces. The BBC recently published data from 162 (of a total of 163) UK universities, showing a 53% increase in the overall numbers of students seeking help in the last five years.
Are young people simply happier to disclose and seek help for their mental health issues or has there been a true increase in incidence? And if so, what’s driving it? Tough questions to answer without research evidence. Social media, academic pressure, student debt, helicopter (or not) parenting, a new culture of perfectionism and competition with no room for failure? It’s complex. In the short term, and until we better understand the hows and whys, universities have the difficult job of meeting the challenge head on and supporting students in the here and now. Bristol is collaborating with talented cross-disciplinary researchers (thanks Universities UK and SMaRteN), in a bid to generate evidence-based research and frameworks, that could improve things for a generation of young people at university.
It’s a lofty mission and my work at Bristol is a small part of the jigsaw. So, what am I looking at specifically? Interventions. More broadly - what type of support works, who it works for, and who it doesn’t. My starting point is a systematic review and a scope of good practise at other universities. I’m lucky enough to have data already. Bristol launched an annual university-wide Mental Health and Wellbeing Survey this year, with more than 5,500 students willing (anonymously) to share their experience, and detail how they seek help. This unique and privileged insight allows me to explore patterns in students’ mental health and wellbeing, tracking changes over the next three years. It’s testament to Bristol’s students that they’re actively involved in shaping solutions in this way.
That survey analysis will also inform another arm of the work – measuring the impact of Bristol’s new Wellbeing framework, just launched in schools and halls. Wellbeing advisors now sit alongside academic staff, liaising and signposting support. Meanwhile in the residential villages, new professional teams offer expert help 24/7, while proactively building inclusive communities. The question is… does injecting more resource and people into the system have an impact on overall mental health and wellbeing? It’s extremely difficult to quantify, so for this research, survey trend analysis alongside detailed qualitative research may be a solution.
In another UK first, Bristol has also just launched a pioneering wellbeing course ‘The Science of Happiness’. Based on Yale’s most successful course of all time, where 1 in 4 students enrol, it’s open to all and consists of: 10 weekly lectures; informal happiness groups; and weekly activities like gratitude lists. Hundreds have signed up, with hundreds more on the waiting list. To date it hasn’t been scientifically evaluated. Does it improve wellbeing? I’ve drafted a protocol and am hoping to formally assess it next year. It’s a golden opportunity to see whether something like this truly impacts wellbeing (and/or mental health) in an educational setting, grounding it in evidence.
One last thing to consider is the difference between mental health and wellbeing. My formal research question is… ‘identifying effective approaches to improving mental health and wellbeing in students’. Do we consider interventions that improve common mental health problems like depression and anxiety, ones we see in growing parts of the student population? Or largescale, proactive wellbeing interventions? For example, peer support, wellbeing courses, or even mindfulness to mitigate (very normal) exam stress, potentially giving young people skills to pre-empt crisis? Watch this space...
Space is something I’m out of here… let’s hope that doesn’t become a thesis theme…
Finally, and on a personal note…I have a fair bit of training to get under my belt. I’ve roped in as many willing collaborators and mentors as I can find. And my supervisors are frankly, rock stars. I’m also putting one foot in front of the other and looking after my work-life balance as a postgrad student (I really do go home and hang out with my kids – no email). Right now, I’m thoroughly enjoying this challenging project, and hoping at some point, that a small part of it will start to make some of those unknowns known.
Jacks Bennett, PhD Researcher, Population Health, Bristol University
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