University open days are designed to showcase university facilities and opportunities to prospective students and their families: the students’ union, the residential and teaching accommodation, the impressive lab facilities. But are they missing a key issue?
Discussions regarding mental health are usually not in the spotlight during tours and conversations on open days, but perhaps they should be. These are difficult and sensitive conversations to have, but maybe the university could explore the possibility of providing a safe space to students and, critically, their close contacts to open this discussion.
Time to seize an opportunity
There should be a dedicated space for students, family and friends to discuss mental health at university open days. One possibility is to create face to face workshops to further develop the mental health literacy of prospective students and those who are closest to them.
In order for these workshops to be well received, they also need to be authentic, and what better way to do this than to have students take a leading role in the sessions. Previous schemes have already highlighted the importance of students leading the way in such initiatives and given the importance of the topic at hand, we need all the help we can get.
Students could work alongside staff such as university mental health advisers to co-produce and co-deliver one hour sessions that could run several times over the course of an open day.
Drawing on their own lived experiences, students can share their insight into how they have managed their mental health while studying at university. For example, they could reveal the conversations with those that are closest to them about mental health that have helped, and why they found them to be so beneficial. Again, the point of this is that an authentic student perspective will be more compelling and help to create a more meaningful interaction during the delivery of these workshops.
Alongside discussing lived experiences, more formal guidance on the management of mental health and how to engage in productive conversations during difficult periods would be important to include. Time could also be dedicated to illustrating the full spectrum of mental health to distinguish between mental illness, poor mental health, and positive mental health. We shouldn’t forget that mental health is not just the absence of mental illness, it’s so much more.
Is a university open day the silver bullet?
The simple answer is no. However, we need to talk about mental health with applicants and their close contacts before it has the potential to become a problem.
For many, a university open day is the start of a relationship between the university and the applicant, which typically involves key people in a student’s social network such as family and friends. Talking about mental health at open days could help to open up a better line of communication between families – so that students don’t feel the stigma or the need to hide concerns once they join us and move away from home.
Typically, good practice is proactive. Universities have a duty of care to ensure that at the very beginning of the journey students have clear expectations and the necessary knowledge to manage the challenges that could arise. That said, we know that not all students attend university open days. That’s why a multi-faceted approach is needed to catch as many difficulties as possible, as early as possible. We also need to create opportunities that could be easily delivered across platforms to help save time and resources, given the continued worry of staff burnout, and this idea can do just that.
For example, the idea presented could be easily incorporated into virtual open days. Financial hardship and geographical barriers can play a role in preventing students from attending open days in person, so this could be a solution for accessibility.
The workshop could be transferred onto an online platform – having been in numerous online seminars, students again are well placed to help get conversations started. Breakout rooms could be used to provide a useful space for sensitive conversations to occur – a place that could also help combat the reluctance to turn on cameras and help facilitate meaningful discussion. Finally, with the chat function, documents focused on guidance can easily be shared, which those involved can refer back to in times of need.
Overall, this approach can continue to build understanding amongst prospective students and their key contacts. An approach that is crucially needed.
Understanding makes all the difference
A key driver for the proposal of this initiative has been discussions with students. Conversations have highlighted the difficulty students have experienced when speaking with members of family about mental health. In some cases, parents had grown up in backgrounds where mental health “wasn’t a thing” and so denied that their children had real concerns. One student even explained that their parent “didn’t want a retarded daughter” and therefore would not entertain the possibility of accessing support.
Unsurprisingly, prior conversations will play a role for students when they are deciding who to turn to for support when they need it most.
Research into an emergency contact protocol highlights barriers for students regarding the involvement of close contacts in the conversation around their mental health. Students were concerned about unhelpful anticipated outcomes, such as the emotional impact it could have on their contacts or the resulting, unwelcome probing into their private lives.
Fundamentally, if emergency contact protocols are to be implemented at universities, then surely the emergency contacts should have adequate knowledge about mental health in the first place to allow for productive and helpful conversations.
Initiatives have already been created to facilitate students helping each other within a university context, such as “help your mate”. Perhaps a similar opportunity can be seized at the start of a student’s university journey for family and friends.
Three is the magic number
With all initiatives that are proposed, the “so what” question quickly follows, and as such, I believe there are key outcomes that could emerge from creating these sessions at open days
- Together, students and their close contacts could build a greater understanding of how to discuss mental health should the need arise, thus addressing a key barrier in students opting into emergency university protocols as described above.
- The guidance could increase knowledge among all students, who’ll one day become friends and rely on each other for advice and help.
- These conversations could also help address the continuing stigma surrounding poor mental health and illness that is still ever-present within our society.
Let’s face it, seizing this opportunity at open days could act as the catalyst for optimism – that despite the challenges that may occur with their mental health, students can prevail, be successful and reach their full potential.