Dr Pauline Hanesworth, Academic Lead (Equality and Diversity / TEF), Higher Education Academy provides an overview of the need for more inclusive curricula that benefits students' mental health and gives an insight into what this may look like.
From 2007/08 to 2015/16, the number of students disclosing a mental health condition nearly quintupled, and the proportion of our students declaring a disability who disclose mental health conditions has nearly tripled. This is within a climate of under-disclosure of mental health issues.
Further, our students report significantly lower levels of mental wellbeing than the general population, with substantial differences in anxiety levels, and this is worsened when crossed with other protected characteristics such as sexuality. This is significant since there is correlation between wellbeing and learning gain and between mental health and dropout rates.
As new research from Student Minds has shown, it is often our lecturers that are at the forefront of this crisis: they are the “first port of call” for students in distress, regardless of their ability or capacity to actually offer support. This is in turn causing distress for them, impacting on their own mental health and wellbeing, and, consequently, limiting further the support they can offer.
It is not the responsibility of our lecturers to provide mental health support to our students: universities should be adequately resourcing their support services to do this. However, this does not mean that they do not have a role to play, one more suited to their learning and teaching focus.
Here it might be useful to consider the two terms “mental health” and “mental wellbeing”. The former (or rather mental ill health) refers to diagnosable conditions while the latter, although a thornier concept, often includes considerations of general life satisfaction, anxiety levels, and resilience. Although, the two are distinct, they are also interrelated and impact on each other (e.g. poor mental wellbeing can hinder our ability to manage mental ill health). As such, lecturers that incorporate considerations of mental wellbeing into the ways in which they teach could support students to manage their mental health.
It is this approach that the Higher Education Academy has taken and which is articulated in our 2017 report Embedding mental wellbeing in the curriculum, co-authored by Ann-Marie Houghton and Jill Anderson. This report, which includes theoretical considerations as well as practical suggestions, outlines an approach predicated on the new economics foundation’s five ways to wellbeing. It advises on, and offers examples for, designing curricula that support students to:
- connect: to the learning process, content and learning community;
- be active: including physical activity, active learning and the exercising of social and political agency;
- take notice: of the learning community, curriculum content and personal response to both;
- give: to the immediate learning or wider community; and
- keep learning: through the student life cycle and beyond.
This is by no means the only method that can be taken when considering the curriculum in relation to mental wellbeing. We admittedly also need to consider how we as lecturers interact with our students – do we “live” the five ways in these interactions? – and we cannot forget that such a method must be part of a holistic, university-wide approach. However, we believe considering curricula in relation to the five ways is one practical way to address student mental health and wellbeing in a manner more fitting to academic roles.