The third Monday in January is often considered the most depressing day of the year but across the higher education sector colleagues are working to celebrate the support available for mental wellbeing in an effort to refocus on the positives to be found in mental wellbeing.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic started an Office for Students (OfS) 2019 insight briefing acknowledged “more students than ever are reporting mental health conditions”, and many have noted the increasing importance of mental health and wellbeing as the pandemic developed, not only through mainstream media but through HE activity within providers and across the sector.
This week a team from seven HE providers is publishing a suite of open educational resources on embedding mental wellbeing in all aspects of higher education to highlight positive activity in the sector in support of enhanced student mental wellbeing. The resources are the results of an extensive QAA collaborative enhancement project to establish definitions for “embedded mental wellbeing”, share good practice, and identify the benefits for embedding mental wellbeing in curricula activity.
In doing so we had to determine our own working definition for what “best practice might look like in this context. The team sought examples that:
- Addressed a recognised mental wellbeing matter in a manner sensitive to the context of the situation (eg considering the holistic setting of the discipline, provider, or student population);
- Was founded on a clear rationale for the method in addressing mental wellbeing;
- Reviewed and refined evaluative techniques to ensure that interventions were impactful and responsive to student need; and
- Translated the explanation of a local intervention into a best practice approach for a wide audience, enabling the evaluation of benefits in different settings.
For example, recognising concerns and anxieties around faith practise whilst on work placement, students in an Audiology programme at De Montfort University are now better prepared for their clinical experiences thanks to a pre-departure Question Time-style panel session.
The panel includes representatives from the course team, mental health provision, alumni, clinicians and faith leaders, providing students with an opportunity to address their concerns and anxieties before embracing the placement experience. The academic team cites long lasting connections formed during these sessions that facilitate peer support and provide an opportunity to explore lived experiences, enhancing the emotional and psychosocial transition from student to early career professional.
There are examples of whole-university approaches to mental wellbeing support, particularly in relation to the pandemic and transitions into, through and beyond the HE experience. In an example from the University of East Anglia, the Student Academic Engagement Process sought to best support students through the uncertainty and potential sense of isolation brought about by the move to online/hybrid study.
A learning analytics approach was developed to better understand how students were engaging with studies that included a process closely aligned to a fitness to study procedure, encouraging greater focus on wellbeing approaches through improved interdisciplinary holistic reviews of engagement data and information across a range of teams and services.
The approach facilitated earlier contact with students starting to demonstrate disengagement from study, provided an improved picture of student engagement, and led to greater retention of students, including from underrepresented and disadvantaged groups who had been noted as more greatly impacted earlier in the pandemic.
Responding to the increased use of online curriculum engagement in recent years, an example from the University of Greenwich shares learning and ideas to improve student confidence to engage in online discussions. Providing practical tips, advice and ideas, the initiative developed from having recognised that whilst many students were confident in the use of technology, the sudden change to it being the predominant method for communication and interaction in the educational environment needed support, framing, and time to develop.
The facilitation of student engagement with regular, real-time feedback was critical to developing confidence in online engagement. Students and academics have provided positive feedback about the activities, and there is recognition that the pedagogical approaches applied here can be translated “back” to the classroom.
The examples curated all have a common starting point: a recognition of the need to change something within the curriculum in order to better support and enhance mental wellbeing, and importantly, the passion and dedication of an individual or team to make the change. It is regularly interdisciplinary teams, often involving academics and professional services, working collaboratively who are responding to need and enhancing the student experience.
In the whole-university approaches there are blueprints for development across institutions, ideas and initiatives that can be replicated for impact in other settings. Across the examples there are practical ideas and takeaway messages to support colleagues in developing their own approaches to embedding mental wellbeing.
There are key benefits to students of embedding mental wellbeing in the curriculum, particularly enhanced resilience, improved confidence and preparedness, and a greater sense of belonging. Practitioners and programmes cite increased student engagement and recognised improved student achievement, whilst universities that have holistically approached embedding mental wellbeing acknowledge the improvements in engagement across the student population and recognise the role of such activity in ensuring equitable access.
A recent Department for Education (DfE) Education Hub blog recognises that 40 providers are participants in the first cohort of the University Mental Health Charter Programme, and calls for all universities to sign up to take part over the next five years. Michelle Donelan, minister for higher and further education, added to the call in her letter to vice-chancellors on 13 December 2021, saying she was “pleased to see mental health and wellbeing established as a long-term strategic priority by many providers” but that providers “could and should do more.” The examples shared in this new resource celebrate existing activity in this area and provide inspiration as we consider how we might all “do more”.