The importance of staff and student wellbeing in the higher education sector cannot be overestimated, that was proven to us in the pandemic, but where we’re going with regards to mental wellbeing is just as important as where we’ve been over the past few years - that was the key focus of the Mental Wellbeing in HE Conference 2022: reading the tea leaves - preparing for the future of mental wellbeing in higher education on 17 May.
A one-day event, organised by the Mental Wellbeing in Higher Education Expert Group in collaboration with Advance HE, brought together a wide variety of mental health experts from the world of higher education and further afield, to Birmingham to explore the direction student and staff wellbeing support is going in and what we can do to prepare ourselves for that future.
Keynote speakers and panels throughout the day each looked at a different element of the future of mental wellbeing.
Keynotes included Sarah Chappell who presented a summary of TASO’s findings and recommendations from the report ‘What works to tackle mental health inequalities in higher education?’ and Lucy Foulkes who discussed where mental health campaigns are going wrong and the need for better, data-driven analysis to improve on what works and drive out what doesn’t.
“It is vital that students always have someone who is there to listen at all hours and on all days.” The out-of-hours support panel with Géraldine Dufour, Ben Lewis, Jacob Kelly, and Augusta Nnajiofor discussed that a lot of serious cases occur during out-of-office hours and often, waiting until the morning is not an option. There are also students who spend all their standard 9-5 studying and unable to attend anything else, meaning they need out-of-office support as well. This is obviously a problem for HE institutions, who need to hire people who are willing to work on-call out-of-hours and over weekends, but it’s absolutely vital that these institutions meet these goals. A key view expressed by the panel was that even in the digital age, students want to be able to speak to someone. When it comes to what students want with regards to this support, they already know the answer, so engaging with students and their unions on this future support is absolutely critical.
Three key themes emerged in the next panel on wellbeing in communities on and off campus with Emma Nieminen, Dr Denise Meyer, Dr Allán Laville and Ben Morley, who discussed that co-creation of campus spaces and student spaces off-campus is vital if they are to be of proper use for the students they are meant to serve. There must also be collaboration between all parties who create the student experience (including third-party providers of student spaces) to ensure a university can meet all the needs of its students and understanding of how the rise in hybrid studying since the pandemic can be done, and how off and on-campus life blends together.
Laura Smythson, Professor Daniel Ladley, Professor Nic Beech and Dr Joan O’Mahony addressed the problems with the future of staff wellbeing in the next panel including the feeling of staff in HE that their mental wellbeing is being neglected by management, the sky-high expectations for their research and teaching, the lack of positive reinforcement in the sector and the issues of poor induction, staff support and mentoring that will only become bigger as the years pass.
The final panel session covered the future of suicide prevention with Nic Streatfield, Teresa Fox, Dr Sharon Mallon and Vicky Groves, discussing the issue of the most vulnerable people being unlikely to opt-in to suicide prevention programmes, when confidentiality needs to be broken for the sake of the person involved and what training needs to be given to staff who make all important decisions in this area. The panel concluded with the thought that suicide prevention programmes will not be effective without full planning, along with clear processes and policy.
Mike Palmer, a member of the 3 Dads Walking group, concluded the day with his keynote. Mike started working with Papyrus, a charity for the prevention of youth suicide after the loss of his daughter Beth. The 3 Dads Walking 300-mile charity walk has so far raised over £880,000 for Papyrus. He reminded delegates why the topic of mental wellbeing is so important, saying that every discussion from the conference and everything that is put into practice in this area leads to, “hopefully, giving hope to someone and letting them fulfil their lives.”
This was a thought provoking, inspiring and at times moving event. All keynotes and panel discussions were presented by people with a depth of knowledge who generously shared their experiences. I have returned with a list of actions that will benefit students and staff...thank you!!"
Mark Fisher, Student Support Manager, New Model Institue for Technology & Engineering (NMITE)
A great day to have such interesting discussions with peers from across the sector."
Laura Harris, Mental Health and Wellbeing Manager, London Southbank University
Such important work by dedicated professionals that will undoubtedly enhance and save lives in all aspects of HE."
Mike Palmer, Suicide Awareness/Prevention Campaigner, 3 Dads Walking
Education for Mental Health Toolkit
Developed as a partnership between the University of Derby, King’s College London, Aston University, Student Minds and Advance HE, and funded by the Office for Students via a Challenge Competition, this toolkit has been created to provide evidence informed guidance on the ways in which curriculum can support both wellbeing and learning. Read more here.