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Q&A with Pete Quinn, Independent Student Well-being Consultant

Pete Quinn, an Independent Student Well-being Consultant, shares his thoughts on the increase in mental health reporting among students and the ways to improve mental wellbeing in universities.

Over the past 10 years, there has been a fivefold increase in students reporting mental health conditions to their institutions. Why do you think this is?

There are a number of reasons for increased disclosure including:

  • Better support structures at university, including Disabled Students' Allowance (DSA)-funded mental health support
  • Mental health awareness: more understanding among university students that mental illness is something to tell your university about, rather than keeping it a secret due to stigma
  • More awareness that the sooner you tell universities, the quicker you enable adjustments to teaching and learning
  • Earlier diagnosis of common mental illness at school allowing greater awareness among individuals

While the increase in reporting sounds large, in real terms this means that 2% of students told their university as opposed to 0.4% ten years before. Given 1 in 6 adults experienced a common mental health problem in the last week - commonly depression, anxiety, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder - this is probably an under-report.

Suggesting this is a ‘mental health crisis’ isn’t helpful. While fewer students are dropping out, due to support after disclosure, lots of progress still needs to be made in terms of destigmatisation. Moving forward, we need to continue to create a campus support structure for students that need it.

So what steps can be taken by universities to improve the mental well-being of their students?

A whole-institution approach is essential to improvement. If we empower all members of the university community to support students and staff with mental illness, the whole institution will benefit.

Tactics include clarifying responsibilities to internal staff, signposting internal support for students, and developing an ongoing strategy to promote (and provide the possibility of) a life-work balance.

There are many examples of great approaches from across the country. Greater Manchester universities have been working regionally with their NHS colleagues to develop a dedicated student-support partnership, whilst Wolverhampton University has undertaken training of front-line staff to upskill them on mental health.

I have also recently worked with city-based student accommodation providers to delineate their role and responsibilities in terms of support, data sharing and community building.

Momentum and commitment are needed to maintain progress on initiatives.

What barriers to institutional improvement are commonly faced and how can these be tackled?

There are some cultural issues, like ‘presenteeism’ - the idea that working harder for longer can overcome technological and societal challenges. There is also the idea that well-being is the remit of support services alone, rather than the responsibility of the whole institution.

I have also found that there is a significant lack of clarity on expectations for study, extra-curricular and enriching activities. If universities offer better provision of opportunities to develop cultural and social capital alongside academic skills, this would benefit students greatly.

Your values are ‘equality, diversity, inclusion’. How can tackling inequality improve student well-being?

The most underrepresented groups in higher education are usually those who have the most risk of mental illness. Creating an inclusive environment where rights and responsibilities are clear can offset the adverse impacts of being ‘other’ or not aware of some norms present in universities.

The biggest change in attitude needs to be that success comes from engaging in everything that supports your success. Trying to do it on your own or working harder for longer is rarely successful overall and this myth needs to be challenged. Thankfully there are some great examples of good practice we can learn from.