There is growing recognition that mental and physical well-being is of ever-increasing importance and concern to students in higher education. In a 2009 study, students across multiple countries rate the importance of well-being higher than money, and the desire to live a fulfilled life.
Academia is an environment where stress abounds. Academic and social pressures combine in a combustible mix of young adult worries and burdens that ultimately manifest into an emotional health melting pot of anxieties. A large body of studies has shown that whether feeling the impact of living away from home for the first time, or the stress and isolation caused by long hours of study, students can be vulnerable to anxiety and depression. These are trends that have certainly been exacerbated by the Covid pandemic over the past two and a half years.
It is likewise resultant that the state of mental health of the student population would be directly linked to that of the faculty and staff, who serve on the front lines as a primary means of support for students. Growing demands on their time, lack of work-life balance, and decreased work security – especially during the time of Covid – have resulted in faculty reporting high psychological distress and elevated physical health symptoms. While it is clear that the student and faculty/staff populations are distinct academic groups, it is foreseeable that the mental well-being among these groups is tightly interleaved.
In a panel talk, ‘Wellbeing across the academic community’, at the Learning and Teaching Conference held in June 2022, I had the opportunity to interrogate these issues with Dr Deborah Holt, Ruthanne Baxter, and Dr Davies Banda. Along with the participants and Dr Mark Hoelterhoff (who chaired the panel), we outlined our views on how we can enhance well-being across the academic community.
Given that a positive mental health environment enhances a student’s ability to learn, and that the student-faculty relationship is so strongly coupled, it is necessary that faculties play a role in creating and fostering healthy learning environments by integrating well-being concepts into curriculums and nourishing a comprehensive, collaborative, and healthy academic lifestyle.
Over the years, researchers have been working on how to best promote positive mental health among students. Christine Alvarado, Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of California, San Diego, is creating an inclusive and empathic classroom environment by encouraging transparency among her students. To combat a negative – or even neutral – emotional learning environment, Dr Alvarado implements strategies to keep students engaged, supported, and responsible for their own time management and learning.
SOVA (Supporting Our Valued Adolescents) is a project where a young person who feels anxious or depressed can go to find information and support from others who have been there too. Through this project, researchers have done interviews and focus groups to help them design the website.
Works like these serve as inspirations for my own research project. I am developing Psychreg Resilience Project (PReP) to help young people in low- and middle-income (LAMI) countries boost their resilience through a blog-based intervention.
As my fellow panellists and I have discussed, a sense of belonging is also a critical component of success at the university level. Students struggling with a sense of belonging are less engaged, less attentive, and tend to avoid participation in active discussions or group activities.
To allow students to thrive academically, university leaders have started taking steps to promote wellness and foster campus cultures that prioritise wellbeing as a value. Similarly, the historical stigmas associated with mental health issues are slowly being erased. The University of Edinburgh has created a dedicated Health and Wellbeing Centre for students. The fully accessible centre houses the main bases for Student Counselling, Student Disability Service, the Equally Safe team, the University Health Centre, and an independent pharmacy. Students can come to the building for same-day counselling appointments, and regular scheduled appointments, as well as accessing the Wellbeing Lounge.
Student wellness centres at other universities, like the University of Oxford and the University of Hertfordshire, have developed models that ensure students’ mental well-being is being addressed on all levels, including emotional, physical, social, intellectual, and financial. The establishment of facilities like these at the centre of campus activities has also served to lessen the shame associated with seeking help. In the US, the University of California system of schools has established a Healthy Campus Network (HCN) that encourages faculty members to offer course credits, research hours and internships to those who participate. These examples show that institutions are investing in improving the health and quality of life of their campus communities.
Creating, designing, and promoting a culture of well-being would help to eliminate the negative connotations associated with mental health, and start to build a foundation of inclusivity and an environment that acknowledges positive well-being. Student Minds, the UK’s student mental health charity, empower students and members of the university community to look after their own mental health, support others, and create change. They train students and higher education staff across the UK to deliver student-led peer support interventions as well as research-driven campaigns, resources, and workshops.
While it is clear that universities and organisations are recognising and responding to the growing problem of mental health, a student doesn’t necessarily have to rely on an institution for support. A self-care plan can similarly help enhance your health and well-being and manage your stress. Learning to identify activities and practices that support your well-being as a student (or faculty) can help to sustain positive well-being during your time on campus. Developing healthy eating habits, regular exercise, and emphasising a healthy sleep routine are essential aspects of a personal self-care programme. Technology solutions, like smartphone apps, can also make support more accessible (while also allowing for methods of collecting measurable data) and provide students with a means to reach out in relative anonymity for the help they require.
The largest mental health survey ever conducted on UK university students reveals an 8% rise year-on-year of those with serious personal, emotional, behavioural or mental health problems for which they needed professional help. The figure now stands at almost half of the student population (42%).
Universities that demonstrate the highest level of commitment to student well-being will be rewarded with increased academic performance, higher retention rates, and better graduation statistics. A holistic approach to well-being will ultimately benefit the academic community.
As the panel closed, Dr Mark Hoelterhoff discussed the formation of THRIVE: a research and collaboration network that he leads through The University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Data, Culture and Society. Participants were encouraged to get involved and continue the conversation on we can best promote well-being across the university community.
An earlier version of this article was published on Teaching Matters.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the managing director of Psychreg.