This article is more than 4 years old

The university mental health charter is here

Addressing student mental health is a wicked problem for universities. Leigh Spanner and Gareth Hughes of Student Minds introduce the new University Mental Health Charter as a guide to solving it
This article is more than 4 years old

Leigh is Sector Improvement Lead at Student Minds.

Gareth Hughes is a psychotherapist and the Research Lead for Student Wellbeing at the University of Derby. He is also a Clinical Advisor for Student Minds.

Student Minds is delighted to introduce the University Mental Health Charter, co-created with hundreds of staff and students with one shared goal: to shape a future in which everyone in higher education can thrive.

This year, we travelled across the UK, bringing together over 400 university staff, students, researchers and representatives from over 180 universities, students’ unions and higher education organisations.

We facilitated over 110 workshops and focus groups, convened panels of experts on key themes, ran an online survey, sought the views of underrepresented students, and finally, sent our recommendations off for a thorough peer review.

We drew on the expertise of stakeholders from AMOSSHE, NUS, Smarten and DfE who sat on our steering group – as well as our clinical and student advisory groups, and our funders, the UPP Foundation and the Office for Students.

Together we sought to understand how we can build on the great work already being done to reduce poor mental health and promote good mental health and wellbeing for all members of the university community. We would like to thank everyone who participated and shared their passion, thoughts and ideas.

The University Mental Health Charter brings together all our learning from our consultations and the literature and provides an evidence informed framework to support universities to make mental health and wellbeing a university-wide priority.

The Charter includes eighteen themes, each with a set of principles of good practice that universities can work towards to achieve a genuinely holistic, whole-university approach to mental health. This will form the basis of the Charter Award Scheme, a voluntary programme being developed in 2020, that will recognise those universities who demonstrate excellent practice and support those who wish to improve mental health across their communities.

There is still more to be examined, learned and debated. However, we hope the Charter will provide a useful tool for staff and students across the sector to better understand the relationship between mental health and higher education, reflect on how we can improve, and stimulate conversations, debate and further inquiry.

A complex problem

Our consultation largely confirmed what is evident in the research; there are large gaps in our understanding of mental health in universities. What we do know is that university mental health is a complex, multifaceted issue with multiple causes and solutions that vary depending on each individual and local context. As such, the Charter does not seek to provide easy answers and engaging with it meaningfully will not be a simple tick-box exercise. Based on principles of good practice, it challenges universities to reflect on what we have learned so far and consider how they can apply the principles in meeting the needs of their own communities.

A whole-university approach

We also learned that complex, multifaceted problems require multi-stranded approaches. This means implementing measures to respond to mental illness, including adequately-resourced mental health services, alongside proactive measures that prevent individuals experiencing difficulties in the first place.

It means reflecting on how every aspect of the university’s provision can support good mental health, whilst empowering staff and students to maintain their own wellbeing. It also means ensuring everyone in the university community, both staff and students, are supported by and have a say in the solution. Arguments that suggest that any one of these approaches is more important than another are bound to be reductive and unlikely to lead to the cultural change we need.

What we have described is a whole-university approach to mental health and wellbeing, long advocated for by the Healthy Universities Network and Universities UK’s StepChange framework. The Charter builds on StepChange to provide further detail and clarity around what a whole-university approach means in practice for staff and students across the university.

Its 18 themes cover a broad range of university activity that can have a significant impact on mental health and wellbeing. These themes have been organised into five sections, mapped to the dimensions of the refreshed model of StepChange, which is due to be launched in January.

  • Section 1 – Learn: Explores the aspects of the student experience most influenced by the curriculum and student learning and development, in their broadest sense.
  • Section 2 – Support: Explores support for mental health, including university service provision, responding to suicide and severe mental illness and collaborating with NHS, external services and families.
  • Section 3 – Work: Outlines the importance of supporting staff wellbeing and development.
  • Section 4 – Live: Sets out how the physical and social environments in which we live and work can promote positive wellbeing.
  • Section 5 – Enabling themes: Outlines a number of enabling themes – leadership, cohesive working across the organisation, student voice, inclusivity and research – that are fundamental to ensuring good practice across every other area.

Foundations for change

It was clear from our consultation that real, sustained change will require significant shifts in culture and ways of working. However, we also witnessed the dedication of staff and students from all parts of the sector, coming together ready to learn from one another and sharing with honesty how they can be part of the change. What we saw was a sector with the necessary foundations to meet this challenge.

Alongside the work of Universities UK, Smarten, those involved in the Office for Students Challenge competition and many other organisations across the sector, Student Minds is committed to providing universities with the knowledge, tools and resources they need to they embrace this shift. The University Mental Health Charter is just the beginning to what we hope will be a transformative movement for the sector’s approach to mental health.

Looking ahead

In 2020, we will publish the findings of our research and provide opportunities for staff and students to learn more about what the Charter means for them. We will pilot the Charter Award Scheme, which aims to encourage further improvement and celebrate those providers who have responded to the challenge of supporting the mental health of their community. And as our understanding of mental health at university improves, we will continue to revise the Charter and disseminate our learning across the sector.

In developing the Charter, working with universities through the Charter Award scheme and encouraging ongoing improvements and collaboration, we can provide a programme through which the efforts of the whole sector can come together for the benefit of everyone in our communities.

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