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Mental health in HE: are initiatives available universally?

07 Nov 2019 | Hannah Borkin In response to the publication of Advance HE’s Postgraduate Research Experience Survey Hannah Borkin, Mixed-methods Researcher at Advance HE, shares her reflections on the emerging inequalities with mental health initiatives in higher education.

I recently attended two conferences on mental health in higher education, one focused on student provision the other focused on staff provision. What struck me was the difference in dynamic between the two – the former filled with meaningful, passionate stories often told from first-hand experience, the latter was, unfortunately, more lacklustre.

We expect university staff to provide front-line care for students and signpost them to ongoing support where necessary. Is it possible to justify asking staff to provide this care when they might be struggling to access it themselves? In the midst of a somewhat dampened discussion on wellbeing at the conference on staff mental health, I asked a Human Resources (HR) professional whether they had considered implementing or improving existing policies that intersect with this topic; flexible working as an example. The answer was surprising, HR were wary of being too lenient about flexible working initiatives as this meant staff would not be available to provide round-the-clock care for students.

In comparison to the ambitious mental health conversation that is currently surrounding students, this answer felt paradoxical when in fact it is often the role of academics to shoulder the responsibility of care. I worry that while the conversation has now entered the mainstream for students, and particularly undergraduate students, institutions are struggling to be inclusive of more unheard voices. Policymakers should be striving to create progressive policies, underscored by intersectional thinking, that link in with a mental health strategy that considers the experiences of all staff and all students.

This includes thinking about the implications of mental health conditions in the postgraduate research (PGR) student population, who are at risk of exposure to issues such as isolation and sustained academic pressure.

The latest iteration of Advance HE’s Postgraduate Research Experience survey included optional wellbeing questions, which mirrored the Office for National Statistics’ four survey questions to measure personal wellbeing. Results on the responses of 50,600 postgraduate research students came out of these questions, along with questions focussed on the student journey, which painted a telling picture of confidence and wellbeing among this group:   

  • Compared to national data for the UK population and undergraduate data, PGR students reported the lowest scores in relation to feeling low levels of anxiety (27-percentage point difference between PGR students and the UK population).
  • While confidence of completing a course within the timescale is relatively high at the start of studies, this steadily reduces over time.
  • Issues related to family, health or personal problems rank most frequently (15%) as a reason for considering leaving a PGR course.

The stresses of PGR study are clearly affecting levels of anxiety among PGR students, and it will be imperative to understand what is in place to support these students and ultimately who is going to support them.

Therefore, how can the sector ensure that conversations around mental health remain buoyant and relevant, but that the gap in provision does not widen for groups of staff and students who are at risk of going unnoticed?

Hannah Borkin is a researcher at Advance HE, and has led on a number of bespoke equality audits for UK-based HE providers. She has sought to combine her expertise in equality and diversity with her interest in intersectional approaches to staff and student mental health in HE.

Our bespoke equality audits are designed to help institutions identify where the challenges lie and what works within their own context. Find out more 

The Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Conference 2020 in Edinburgh is a three-day conference supported by the Scottish Funding Council. Book your place now.


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