Call for universities to embed wellbeing in curriculum, to save student mental health

January 28, 2021

“Saving the mental health of students means changing how we help them; and fast”

Call for universities to embed wellbeing in curriculum, to save student mental health

Jisc (the UK’s digital body for tertiary education and research) and Emerge Education have today released a report charting how universities can address the student mental health and wellbeing crisis; by embracing technology and embedding wellbeing practices into every aspect of university life.

A 2020 Office for National Statistics survey exposed the devastating impact of Covid-19 restrictions on students’ mental health in England.  Of the 2,000 higher education students surveyed, 57% reported a worsening in their mental health and wellbeing during the autumn term, and 63% felt Covid-19 posed either a big or significant risk to their mental or physical health.

The student and staff wellbeing report, states that achieving a mentally healthy university means moving from a “reactive crisis management model” to one that uses technology to embed wellbeing initiatives across whole institutions and curriculums. An approach that would also help universities to reach students and staff who are isolated (by lockdown, geography, or disability).

John de Pury, Universities UK assistant director, writes: “Technology is a key enabler of the whole university approach to mental health, providing new opportunities to identify those in difficulty, to connect, to influence behaviours and to deliver support. Since the beginning of the pandemic, university staff have been working at pace to transform support services, by moving counselling and advice online, building digital communities, and developing new services to meet new needs. Throughout they have worked in close partnership with digital providers who have brought commitment and expertise to the shared objective that UK universities emerge from the pandemic as healthy settings, enabling all students and all staff to thrive and succeed to the best of their potential.”

Examples from MiddlesexUCEMExeterManchester and Nottingham Trent universities show how apps, tools and platforms are already being used to build mental fitness and provide information, resources and conversation spaces for students. Many provide therapy and intervention where needed, and some support other areas where wellbeing is a concern, such as finance and personal safety.

Mark Sawyer, head of student wellbeing and welfare, University of Exeter, notes in the report: “There is a lot we can do digitally now, and we have flexibly changed our service so that at least 85% is a digital offering. If it needs to be face-to-face, it tends to be students for whom digital just doesn’t work. We can now access students that we wouldn’t usually, offering the appropriate support, advice and guidance to students.”

Despite the benefits, embedding wellbeing services and moving them online comes with complications. Students might not have quiet spaces to talk privately, could feel uncomfortable engaging through video, or might have a disability that makes using digital provision more challenging.

The report’s four recommendations aim to tackle these challenges.

  • Wellbeing is for everybody: a whole population approach
    We are all affected by our mental wellbeing and that of others.
  • Wellbeing is a lifelong project: a whole life approach
    Wellbeing doesn’t start when someone becomes an undergraduate and stop when they graduate. It needs lifelong learning and lifelong skills development to build resilience.
  • Wellbeing is embedded in all activities: a whole curriculum approach
    Universities are health organisations as well as learning organisations. For individuals to thrive and learn, health gain cannot be separated from learning gain.
  • Wellbeing is a collective endeavour: a whole university approach
    The whole-university approach values the contribution of all. It moves mental wellbeing away from being the sole concern of student health and mental health support services and involves the entire community. This takes sustained effort and leadership.

“ Saving the mental health of students means changing how we help them; and fast. We hope the ideas and best practice examples in the report will both fuel and support real change for the university wellbeing model. The report contains a wellbeing technology checklist, and inspiration from several universities about how technology has bolstered sturdy online wellbeing support for staff and students alike. At Jisc, we’re committed to helping organisations protect the wellbeing of staff and students with technology, now and in the future. We’ve published guides and are running events to help staff better support student wellbeing, as well as their own.” Sue Attewell, head of edtech at Jisc

Nic Newman, Emerge Education partner says: “Universities have proved they can transition to online delivery at impressive speed, improving digital skills, and supporting students by teaching them in a new format during a uniquely stressful time. There has never been a more critical time to support staff and student wellbeing. This report shows that by supporting students and staff with the right wellbeing tools, skills, and support, and by using technology as a conduit, we can work together to ease and eventually curb the student and staff mental health crisis.”