What students need is to know that someone is looking out for them

Gurbaaz Gill argues that considerations of staff and student mental health will need to underpin new approaches to the fundamentals of a university.

Notwithstanding the culture of ostracism that universities have historically condoned, they have more recently been regarded as sanctuaries for students – places that champion the exploration of one’s identity and natural expression of thought.

Universities are institutions where the greatest minds mature – where cultures brew, amalgamate, and enable a vibrant environment, favourable for comprehensive development of their engaged members.

However, neither universities operate in isolation, nor do they have impregnable fortified walls. Complex realities of the world around them may have implications that vary for individuals of their population depending upon intersectional backgrounds.

The pastoral role of universities therefore implies that they must appropriately support students to continue authentically expressing themselves, and to achieve outcomes they set out to attain.

Impacts on students

The Covid-19 outbreak has had adverse impacts on universities and their membership. Students have had to depart university and return to their homes which was merely inconvenient for some, but catastrophic for others.

You couldn’t pop into Student Services anymore with a query – you had to instead wait for an advisor to reply after they sifted through endless piles of similar emails. If you didn’t understand a topic, you couldn’t sit down with a friend and go through it in-depth anymore.

If you didn’t have a stable internet connection or competent technological apparatus, you missed almost everything that happened in university over the past few months; including teaching, potential work opportunities, skill development ‘webinars’, and so much more.

If you stayed with other people, your home environment likely couldn’t emulate the quiet of a library very well. You had to deal with the virtualization of your life – the confinement to a closed space, limitation of resource, a rampant pandemic, the grim reality of the social evils we’ve normalized, and exams, all at once.

The other pandemic

The interplay between all of these events has triggered another, less-talked-about crisis – what we might call the “Mental Health pandemic” – and the fact that individual circumstances were affected in varied ways implies that mental health too has been affected inconsistently.

With most UK universities moving their cycle of business online at least till the end of the year, and physical spaces being out-of-bounds unless prescribed, challenges to mental health are likely to persist, even intensify.

With fewer people in direct contact, identifying warning signs and red flags is even more difficult. The well-established environments around which student experience and interaction are based will need to be entirely re-thought.

Fabricating a sense of belonging is perplexing enough in usual times, let alone in times when students are restricted to matchbox dorm rooms, and homes, countries apart. Furthermore, limited flexibility in provision and assessments would certainly disadvantage disabled students.

Additionally, the magnitude of online content and engagement implies that the risk of cyberbullying is significant; and we haven’t even got to the repercussions for student affairs staff yet. They’ve had to continue supporting students while working from home, operationalizing transition plans, through furloughs, and let’s not forget (even though it’s extremely easy), they have personal lives too. They didn’t work at home, they homed at work.

Universities have “zoomed” years into their digital future in months, and whether they will cope is for time to tell. That said, what is certain is that a sustained, cohesive effort is paramount to ensuring a mentally healthy university and averting an impending precarious crisis.

Students need allies

Considerations of staff and student mental health will need to underpin new approaches to the fundamentals of a university. Eloquent broadcast-corporate-communication, tactfully reassuring without acknowledgement of the times, is unlikely to be appreciated by students.

What they need is to know that someone is looking out for them. Allyship needs to reflect in every possible opportunity. Personal tutors will need to establish themselves as reliable first points of contact by being proactive, not reactive and patchy. It is likely that residence staff have the most contact with students for a significant part of the year, they will need to be trained appropriately to pick up signs of distress and further signpost. They will also need to be supported to mitigate deleterious impacts to their own wellbeing. It’s a cascading cycle where one’s mental health, managed well may mean that they are further able to assist others with a high degree of efficacy.

This premise of allyship needs to permeate digital environments too. In other words, email signatures, lecture slides, moodles, and entire websites need to redirect to support resources that Universities Mental Health Services have proactively put together in the past few months. Digital environments need to be carefully regulated, not monitored – that would challenge the fundamentals of freedom that universities are bastions of – but tailored to facilitate authentic interaction, and prevent unhealthy confrontation.

Digital competence will need to be embedded, as what is at stake is the harmony of the ecology – the cornerstone of a university. These environments will also need to reassure users of complete safety, as the risk of potential policing by external entities is increasingly relevant.

A mentally healthy university will need to take a population-based approach to mental health support while simultaneously enriching individual crisis support. For decades, reducing counselling wait-times has been atop manifestos of sabbatical officers and the digital acceleration has meant that we are finally getting somewhere with a “blended” online approach.

By offering online appointments, universities like King’s College London have managed to completely eradicate a wait-list over the past few months. The online provision has also mitigated the need for additional counselling spaces, a historical barrier for the expansion of services. But this doesn’t mean that we have solved the puzzle of individual crisis support – concerns around staffing remain and come September the number of referrals is bound to rise. This makes the development of population-based psycho-educational programs, and systems of peer-support crucial so that the strain on counselling services is minimum.

The pandemic that has propelled universities years into their digital visions has also taken them right back to the drawing board. There are way more considerations to make and problems to tackle than personnel available, and it will be hard to get everything right in the first try. However, a transparent approach with allyship and a conducive digital ecology at the centre will enable universities to support their members to thrive.

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