The new Stepchange is an opportunity to renew our efforts on mental health

Universities UK President Julia Buckingham calls on vice chancellors to demonstrate leadership in committing to mentally healthy universities.

There has already been a shift in how universities consider mental health, but there is more that needs to change.

This pandemic means that we are focused more than ever before on staff and student wellbeing. When we think about the post-Covid recovery, we must ensure that that this focus is sustained.

I know how determined the students and staff at my own university are about ending the stigma around mental health and making sure that those getting into mental health difficulties are properly supported. This is very much part of a shared commitment that all students and staff should thrive and realise their potential.

Since the crisis started our trained therapists have been working hard to support students individually while also delivering group sessions online to help our students and staff cope with the challenges they face in these unprecedented times.

There is much good work to share and celebrate across our sector. From the sheer breadth of support available for those getting into difficulty, typified by institutions such as Anglia Ruskin University; through modules designed to enhance individual wellbeing such as the University of Bristol’s Science of Happiness; innovative technology-based approaches such as that being tested at Northumbria University, and new models of partnership with the NHS such as the Greater Manchester Universities Student Mental Health Service.

We have also seen these approaches being brought together in comprehensive and exemplary strategies, such as UWE Bristol’s Mental Wealth strategy.

The Stepchange journey

Since Universities UK published the original Stepchange framework back in 2017, we have tested the framework, identifying gaps in the way universities were approaching mental health. One common assumption had been that universities should focus on students’ mental health, with staff mental health discussed only in relation to student mental health.

It is true of course that without mentally healthy staff, it is impossible to properly support students. Now, in line with national and global efforts to improve workplace wellbeing, such as Mind’s Mental Health at Work Commitment, the refreshed Stepchange outlines a vision that gives equal emphasis to staff wellbeing.

The Covid-19 crisis has brought new urgency to the progress we want to achieve. As we all adapt to new ways of working, studying and living under lockdown, we face a unique set of pressures, ranging from issues with technology to financial hardship, isolation or strained relationships, uncertainty and loss.

Universities have responded quickly to move existing mental health support online and to focus on additional needs and vulnerable groups. We are also looking to the medium term as we start to consider returning to physical settings with health and mental health at the front of our minds and an even sharper imperative to consider wellbeing across everything we do.

Our refreshed framework, Stepchange: mentally healthy universities, encourages universities to sustain this strategic focus. Its shared set of principles inform the Student Minds university mental health charter, which will provide a voluntary accreditation scheme. We have also published a self-assessment tool developed alongside the refreshed framework for those universities who may not want to commit to the Student Minds charter scheme.

Lead from the top

We encourage our members to adopt a whole university approach to mental health, ensuring that mental health and wellbeing are a core part of all university activities. Strong and visible leadership is essential to unlock the changes we all want to see.

We need to see senior leaders speaking out and promoting open and supportive conversations about mental health, involving students and staff in a collective commitment to improve outcomes for all, and most importantly demonstrating sustained senior focus on and resource to this issue.

Universities UK is currently working with world-leading culture change consultancies and a group of eight universities to design and test a tool for senior leadership that will enable this focus.

We also need university leaders to develop partnerships, locally and nationally, with the NHS to improve the access that our community has to mental health support and to forge links with parents, schools, colleges and employers so that mental health is understood along the whole educational journey.

Mental health is a twenty-first century grand challenge. Universities do not just have a duty of care to support students and staff. They have an opportunity to equip them with the tools to best manage their own mental health, and support the mental health of others, for the rest of their lives. University leaders: please make the most of this opportunity. It deserves our full attention.

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