More than 120 academics and higher education professionals met in Manchester this week to discuss the latest theory and practice at the Mental Wellbeing in HE Conference 2023.
Organised by the Mental Wellbeing in Higher Education Expert Group in collaboration with Advance HE, the conference convened a wide variety of mental health experts to explore the direction of support for student and staff wellbeing and what we can do to prepare for that future.
Keynote speaker Dominique (Dom) Thompson, award winning GP, young people's mental health expert, author and educator, addressed some of the biggest wellbeing challenges higher education institutions have been seeing post-pandemic.
Dom said: “The Covid-19 pandemic created the problems we were seeing before 'on steroids'. The two biggest things that seem to be coming out for our students are anxiety and isolation.
Mental health challenges during Covid
“When it came to Covid, it was the young people taking the hit to their mental health. There was a significant rise in the number of young people with involuntary tics and obsessive compulsive disorder. We lived in times of uncertainty and we became very inculcated with the idea that being safe meant staying at home. That has translated to some students not going to lectures not because they don’t care, but because they feel safe at home.
“The thing that keeps striking me again and again is that at the age when they are supposed to be finding their new tribe, leaving the family home, connecting with others their age, their life was disrupted in a massive way, and that has disrupted their ability to build those social skills, know how to meet others and have difficult conversations.
Sharp rise in concerns post-pandemic
“Their first year back post-pandemic, they were worried about three things: academic stuff, making friends. and the future. The pandemic hasn’t gone away; there’s climate change and they don’t know if they’re going to get a job.
“This year when we asked young people what they are worried about, number one was still social connections, but cost of living has really shot to the top - one in three students are missing meals. There’s period poverty. This is disastrous for our young people. Alongside that, they’re worried about their academic achievement and they are still worried about the world around them. This is a very in touch and connected generation who worry about racism, sexual violence and climate change.”
Closing the conference, Dr Liz Brewster, a Non-Clinical Senior Lecturer in Medical Education from Lancaster University, said: “When we think about mental health, I want us to think about it in terms of the wider community networks that we all live in and beyond that into the socio-economic, cultural and environmental conditions.
“The thing that really summed up the data for me was that we want to create a culture where people are looking out for each other and noticing when things go wrong. Community and compassion are what help to create a sense of belonging, feeling part of something and that people care about them.”
Out of hours
Dr Brewster stressed that the importance of the university library cannot be understated, as one of the few student hubs often open 24/7.
She said: “Students want to be a good student, they want to be doing well, and the library contributes to their self-image and supports them to gain skills to be a better student or group worker. At the same time, it can also have a negative impact if students identify barriers to engage with the text. If you’re going to think about what the library can offer to students in terms of mental health, are you looking for measurable results? Is it just about delivering information about service? Since libraries are often 24/7, do we need to think about out of hours provision? What is available and what isn’t.”
How students view failure
Concluding how students view failure as a whole, not only in studying, but in life generally, Dr Brewster said: “What we recognised in research was that we were working with a very different definition of failure. So where we see students who are ticking all the boxes, they were really worried about what they felt was failure. They couldn’t disconnect from that feeling because they felt like everyone else was having a better time and social media was a big part of that.
“We ran a series of workshops for students about failure. If we had called them ‘how to be an academic success’, students wouldn’t have shown up because they didn’t feel like they could do it. Calling it ‘academic failure’ started to appeal to students who did come, and it was powerful for them to see that they weren’t alone....having that space to be vulnerable. They all thought they would be the only one in the room. In the eyes of the institution, they weren’t failing at all. Moving away from that individual construction and knowing you’re not alone is vital.”
Student Retention and Success Symposium: The Cost of Student Poverty
Join us in Leeds on 1 June 2023 to discuss the cost of student poverty at our Student Retention and Success Symposium. Find out more and book your place.