HEPI’s latest Policy Note concludes that the sector needs to specifically measure student and staff wellbeing. But it is what we do this information that matters most.
The concept of wellbeing is broader than clinically diagnosable conditions. It can be linked but cannot be conflated with information about the prevalence of mental illness. Taking a closer look at student and staff wellbeing data may allow for improved understanding on areas including loneliness, academic stress, workload and other variables that are directly shaped by student and staff experience of higher education.
While Rachel Hewitt’s paper looks at the case for improving student wellbeing data, it is also worth noting that there really isn’t all that comprehensive a picture on the depth and scale of mental illness within the student cohort either. Most data is age-based information sourced from the NHS or Public Health England and there is very little research exploring the specific context and impact of higher education on mental health.
The sector relies on self-declared student disability data summarised here by HESA as well as data gathered by institutions from their mental health and wellbeing services. Depending on the institution, this could be a simple annual summary of presenting issues through to the assessments used by clinicians over the course of therapy. In short, there is no reliable sector wide data on the picture of student mental health as well as student wellbeing.
As the paper points out the picture for staff is even more scant with HESA collecting data that only relate to their employment status. Even still, putting aside the need for more detailed data on these sets of information: student wellbeing, student mental health, and staff mental health and wellbeing data, this gathering exercise is futile unless institutions are serious about using this data to deliver and evaluate their services and programmes.
Using data to make a difference
The data collected by counselling and wellbeing services varies greatly institution to institution and it would appear that such information is either not currently made visible or brought together to examine how services are being run across the sector. Services and programmes across higher education are organised in vastly different ways with different labels (i.e. counselling, wellbeing, student support) and with wide ranging outcomes. Any future student mental health and wellbeing data that is collected must also be done so in the context of informing agreed standards and outcomes.
It’s not just about puppy dogs
Hewlitt’s paper highlights the dangers of treating the terms “mental health” and “wellbeing” as interchangeable and the need for developing interventions that address both these domains. Improving data collection must also be accompanied by the understanding that the factors that shape a student’s mental health and wellbeing are diverse. It can be anything from the anxieties arising from living costs through to a long term diagnosis of a mental health condition. There may be relationships between these factors or none.
With this in mind, this paper challenges those in decision making roles in universities to differentiate between wellbeing based interventions, aimed at all students and staff, from clinical interventions geared towards responding to those with mental ill health. These are very different in nature and upping the investment in the former will not reduce the need for the latter.
Every aspect of a university’s operations – course design, campus, academic assessment policies – will impact either positively or negatively on student (and staff) wellbeing. Equally, a high quality, well funded counselling service is needed to respond to both presentations of mental ill health in students, and when their general sense of wellbeing may be compromised. Future data that is canvassed must take account of the wide range of inputs required to promote student mental health and wellbeing.
Not going against evidence
If data that is captured around student wellbeing points also to clear interventions that make a lasting difference – be it 1:1 support or mindfulness programs – then the sector must waste no time to invest in these activities. Resource allocations that are made in this area must be informed by a clear base of evidence of what works.
It is bewildering that some institutions have sought to reduce or cap the capacity of trained counselling staff in favour of other lower cost programmes with a limited evidence base. Innovation in how programs and services are delivered must be encouraged but not at the expense of delivering interventions that make a difference.
With thanks to Levi Pay, Principal Consultant, Plinth House