Wellbeing modules: mental health and the role of universities

Source: Iñaki del Olmo via Unsplash

by Anna Hart

Trigger warning: this article contains discussion of mental health and suicide

The mental health crisis among university students hit the headlines in 2017 as the national media reported on the high number of student suicides at the University of Bristol, where thirteen students are believed to have taken their own lives in the last three years. A survey conducted by Dig-In and The Insight Network in March of this year found that almost 34% of students ‘have experienced a serious psychological issue for which they felt they need professional help’, whilst almost 88% of students ‘reported that they had struggled with feelings of anxiety’, showing the prevalence of mental health issues among the student population. With NHS mental health services drastically underfunded and university counselling services overwhelmed with the number of students seeking help, what more can and should universities be doing to support their students’ mental health?

In a survey conducted by the emotional fitness app Fika, 96% of students think universities should teach emotional education, which would mirror the new wellbeing modules to be introduced in schools from September 2020. These classes will educate students on ways to be resilient, the importance of self-care and how to look after their mental wellbeing. Emotional education in universities would be an important step in the right direction, bringing student mental health to the forefront of universities’ priorities. This would provide many benefits including equipping students with knowledge, tools and resources to better cope with mental health struggles and helping to combat stigma through opening up the conversation around mental health. However, this must not be seen as a replacement or substitute for direct intervention for struggling students, such as one-to-one counselling or group therapy.

“Emotional education would, therefore, need to be part of a holistic approach to mental health support, which would also include both university counselling and NHS mental health services.”

Universities have a duty of care for their students, which includes ensuring they have access to support services that will provide help and guidance when needed, in order to ensure they can achieve their best during their time at university. Student counselling services are vital to support those students who need professional help for mental health issues they encounter during their studies. One student told Gair Rhydd that they think wellbeing modules ‘could only give generic advice that would help some but not more severe and nuanced cases’ because ‘they don’t allow for individualisation and confidentiality’. Emotional education would, therefore, need to be part of a holistic approach to mental health support, which would also include both university counselling and NHS mental health services.

Mental health service provision for students cannot be solely the duty of universities; it is the responsibility of the NHS too. More funding is required of both organisations to provide an adequate service readily accessible to those who need it, in order to reduce excessive waiting list times, which can leave struggling students and young people without support.  As Jade Yap, research officer for The Mental Health Foundation, suggested in an article on suicide prevention in universities, a collaboration between different sectors could work well to reduce the number of suicides among students. A collaborative approach between universities and the NHS, which would involve greater funding for counselling services available to young people and improved mental health education through wellbeing modules, would help to combat the student mental health crisis.

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