mental health research
Learning mental health
Sir Norman Lamb MP, a former mental health minister, has called for the introduction of a charter to guarantee access to mental health support for students.
Building on a recent article on suicides in construction, Dr Nick Bell examines some common themes and lessons that can be applied by any organisation.
Sir Norman Lamb’s research revealed huge variations in the way mental health is addressed across the UK’s universities. In some instances, universities did not maintain critical data such as waiting times, use of mental health services or their expenditure on mental health. The data that was available revealed some shocking statistics. For example, the average time to wait for support at some universities was 52 days.
There are varied and complex reasons why these services are needed at all. In the recent article on suicides in construction, it was proposed that people are more likely to become ill when thier fundamental needs are not met. When needs go unmet, people lack the emotional, physical and mental resources to manage inevitable pressures of work, life or studies (or to cope with pre-existing mental health conditions).
Whether we are dealing with construction workers, university students or anybody else, we all have similar, core needs.
If we step into the shoes of a university student it is possible to glimpse how their needs can be undermined. We all have a basic need to feel safe. When they start university, students find themselves in a brand new town or city and in a larger and more bewildering institution than anything they have previously experienced. They are often having to manage diaries and finances for the first time, and many are building up huge debts. It is understandable how, for some individuals, rather than being exciting, these first few months can be a time of considerable insecurity.
Even cooking or going to the launderette will be a new experience for some students. It is quite possible that their self esteem will be knocked if they feel that they can’t cope (and we all have a need to have a sense of self worth). Needless to say, their self-esteem can also be undermined if students believe that they are not coping with their studies and therefore do not experience a sense of competence (which is another human need).
Similarly, while humans seek (to varying degrees) challenge and stimulation, it is possible to feel overwhelmed by those challenges, and believe ourselves to be inadequate (i.e. feel low self-worth), if we do not believe we have the capacity to cope with them.
Students will have left their families and friends and be faced with the monumental task of forging new friendships. We all strive for a sense of belonging.
The examples could go on and reveal how students could feel a lack of control over their own lives or struggle to make sense of their new identify as they transition from ‘young person’ to adult. Drinking or drug use may become coping mechanisms but can add to these difficulties.
In the article on suicides in construction, it was suggested that simply offering counselling or mental health first aid in response to these issues is not getting to the heart of the problem (although may be a part of the overall response).
Instead it was proposed that employers (and universities in the case of students) might flip this around and consider what they could do to help meet the needs of workers to bolster their resilience and resources to deal with pressures (or pre-existing mental health conditions).
This approach could open up some creative solutions. Examples in the case of Universities (some of which are fairly common practice) could be:
- Extended inductions (rather than bombarding students in the first week);
- Life skills classes;
- Working with stakeholders to promote responsible drinking (e.g. avoiding end of year, drink-the-bar-dry events);
- Buddy/mentor systems;
- Creating quieter sanctuaries in campuses;
- Ensuring students are placed on appropriate courses (rather than using the clearing system to fill places on unpopular courses);
- Foundation classes in academic skills;
- ‘Thinking skills’ sessions to help people become more aware of their thoughts and emotions including how to recognise and challenge unhelpful or unhealthy thoughts;
- Practice assignments to help people safely hone their skills;
- More representative ways of testing understanding and application of knowledge (e.g. coursework) to avoid the intense pressure of examinations;
- Giving time and training for lecturers to identify and support students who are struggling.
Investing in such measures may reap wider benefits than maintaining good mental health, such as achieving better grades and student retention and satisfaction.
Any organisation can ask itself how they can reasonably help meet the needs of the people for whom they have a duty of care. It would be even better to simply ask those people.