Academics under pressure: the invisible frontline in student mental health

Interactions between students and academics can shape a student’s experience – and for many students going through mental health difficulties, academics are often the first point of contact. Students turn to academics for advice because they may be seen as more approachable, accessible and they have a pre-existing relationship.

Students also turn to academics when their mental health is affecting their learning outcomes – it is likely that positive conversations will prevent a student from dropping out of university, and will enable them to succeed. However, research conducted for Student Minds, by Dr Nicola Bryom and Gareth Hughes indicates that academics are struggling to respond effectively to student mental health.  

What is the role of the academic?

Researchers interviewed 52 academics with diverse experience, at five UK universities. These academics identified that responding to student mental health problems is now an inevitable part of the role, and they felt unprepared for this demand. However, this crucial frontline role is currently invisible, and the higher education sector does not have the appropriate structures or cultures to assist academics.

Academics have multifaceted roles – with an expectation to both conduct research and teach to a high standard, and for some pastoral support can create competing priorities that are hard to manage. Those interviewed felt that their role in student mental health is ambiguous and unclear.

Being unsupported means that responding to student mental health problems is likely to have a significant, negative ongoing cognitive, emotional, relational and practical effects and impact on the wellbeing of academics. Our research indicated that additional support for students and academics around mental health will free up academic time and energy for teaching and research while ensuring better outcomes for students and reducing institutional risk.

Shouldn’t they just signpost?

The participants in the study were all very aware that, theoretically, they are expected to signpost students experiencing problems with their mental health to relevant support, usually student services. However, this task often seemed more complex than might first appear. Signposting is more than simply telling a student about a service that exists. There are, in effect, pre-conditions that must be met for a student to be willing and able to access further support – the report outlines these in further detail and how the academics can facilitate access to support. Ineffective signposting just creates further need to support the student.

Where does the responsibility lie?

Student support services – such as wellbeing services, counselling and advice centres based within universities, are often unable to meet student needs due to waiting lists, a lack of provision, or a narrow service offer that may not effectively support students. In many universities across the UK, there is a disconnect between academics and student services and this creates a gap for students to fall into.

Institutional direction and support is required to ensure that students experiencing mental health difficulties get timely and appropriate support, and academics are able to play an appropriate role. But this has to be an intentional decision. Student services need to be resourced to build strong relationships with academic departments.

The ‘StepChange Framework’, launched by Universities UK in 2017 calls for universities to take strategic action for the mental health and well-being of the university community. To take a ‘whole university approach’, those making strategic decisions, must consider the support provided by academic support. This may look like including the support providing by all staff, beyond student services, in an audit of mental health and wellbeing support.

Fail to fund student support services and the work will fall elsewhere

Where student support services are unable to meet demand, supporting students automatically falls to academics. 

This research throws light on how academics are a vital but often unrecognised part of the support available to students at universities. It’s inevitable that students will reach out to whoever they feel comfortable with, so to ensure that student support needs are met, institutions must support academics to have roles with clear boundaries and good relationships with their student services, backed on a strategic level through a whole university approach to student mental health and wellbeing.

Read the full report: Student Mental Health: The Role and Experience of Academics.

Leave a Reply