Thriving Learners results will be invaluable

Professor Pamela Gillies is the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Glasgow Caledonian University and Lead Member for Mental Health at Universities Scotland. She has written for Universities Scotland on the publication of new research from Mental Health Foundation about student mental health.

The Thriving Learners research study into student mental health from the Mental Health Foundation is hugely significant because of its scale, its timing and, of course, because of what it tells us. With over 15,000 self-selecting respondents from across all of Scotland’s universities, we think it is the largest ever survey into student mental health and we believe the insight it offers has implications for higher education across the UK.

The size of the survey commands attention but the response to it needs to be built around the individuals who have contributed. Students responded to the survey between January and April 2021, overlapping with Scotland’s second national lockdown due to COVID-19 and as they approached the end of the first year of unprecedented levels of disruption to their education, their lives and the serious health and financial concerns that have been such a feature of the pandemic. I am grateful to every student that took the time to respond to this highly detailed survey, to share their lived experience, which will be deeply personal and painful in many cases, in order that the results might help other students.

In all honesty, it was never the plan to survey students on this scale during the pandemic. Obviously, the pandemic was unprecedented and unforeseeable but the need to get a robust understanding of how our students were feeling was there beforehand. We’d been working with the Mental Health Foundation and the Robertson Trust, as the funders, for some time before the pandemic hit. I am pleased we went ahead and surveyed when we did. Not everything in the results can be attributed to the pandemic effect, although it is bound to have had an impact. The pandemic has exacerbated many pre-existing problems of financial hardship, adverse childhood experiences and depression. Its impact is far from over. There will be a long and detrimental legacy from the pandemic that we need to understand and we need to do all we can to support our students to overcome. The data is invaluable to us as universities and to our partners in Government, the NHS and third sector in working towards that goal.

Many of the data make for concerning reading. Nearly three-quarters of respondents reported low wellbeing and 45% of respondents reported that they had experienced a serious psychological issue, with which they felt needed professional help.  Of the students responding to the survey 57% cited fear of stigmatisation as a reason to conceal how they were feeling.

The Mental Health Foundation’s report and recommendations are an important milestone in the sector’s long-term and strategic approach to supporting student mental health and wellbeing.  The MHF data achieves most where it catalyses further action. And it will. But that action is not reinvention. We should not overlook the very good work already in place across higher education. Student Mental health is already a priority issue for institutions. We have a strategic Framework in UUK’s Step Change, which favours a holistic approach to tacking this issue for students as well as for our staff.  We also have well established partnerships with our student associations in the form of Mental Health Agreements. For me, it is about further progression on the journey promoting good mental health and resilience preventing poor mental health and rolling out good practice across all institutions. I have already seen culture shifts in our institutions where the emphasis is on a learning environment that really does support the wellbeing agenda and where mental health is talked about openly, inclusive and supportively. Clearly much more work is needed as students still perceive there to be stigma related to talking about their mental health.  I welcome the MHF’s focus on a trauma-informed approach within higher education and that is something that we are increasingly building into our planning. Indeed, Universities Scotland has planned for 2022 to have trauma informed practice in their remit.  Institutions will continue to work ever closer with our students and a wide range of partners as we move forward.

It’s been immensely valuable to work alongside the Mental Health Foundation from the outset of this work. Doing so has meant that Scotland’s universities have obtained helpful insights along the way which has allowed us to already take early action on the helpful recommendations. We’ve reached out to the Scottish Government for support with practical action that could ensure stronger, more effective referral pathways into the NHS where students need clinical care. This is working well in some parts of Scotland, but not everywhere and no student should be at risk of slipping through a gap. Institutions have reflected and shared good practice in developing suicide safer strategies, which builds on UUK’s helpful guidance. We intend to continue with this work in the New Year with an event for practitioners. We are happy to lead or be part of the suggested roundtable on food insecurity and have indicated to NUS Scotland that we’d want to connect these plans to its current work on student poverty and hardship so that we’re working together.

This report is timely and it is important. Universities are acting and will continue to act on the findings, within our own institutions, collaboratively across the sector and with partners. I offer that certainty to every student who participated and to the student body as a whole.