Mini-series: Linking learning and teaching with mental health and wellbeing

In this post, Andy Shanks, Director of Student Wellbeing, introduces the latest mini-series, which explores the links between learning and teaching and mental health and wellbeing at The University of Edinburgh…

It is fantastic to be writing the first of nine blogs on mental health and wellbeing as part of this mini-series, especially as these themes continue to be at the heart of many conversations on how we can improve the student experience here at the University of Edinburgh. I was fascinated to hear Peter Felten, in his excellent key-note speech at the recent Learning and Teaching Conference, say that research shows that the single most important factor in enabling students to establish and maintain positive mental wellbeing is what happens in the classroom.

He spoke compellingly about feelings which students experience such as ‘fear of failure’, ‘imposter syndrome’ and ‘perfectionism’, and about how enriching classroom interactions both with peers and lecturers can enable students to overcome these feelings through realising that they have great inner resources, assets, strengths and capabilities. He talked about ‘mentoring moments’, where each of us can have a significant, positive impact on students (and our colleagues!), and about the ‘relentless welcome’ which helps students feel a strong sense of both identity and community within a university over a longer period.

All of these are incredibly important messages for us, and they make real sense to me and strengthen my feeling that we need an integrated approach across professional and academic services, and throughout the student journey, in order to enable students studying at The University of Edinburgh to feel a sense of connection, that they belong to a community, that we care about them, and that they can succeed.

Within the work of the Student Mental Health Strategy Implementation Group, we have recently refreshed our Action Plan and have aligned it with the Universities UK Step Change model to ensure that we work towards adopting a ‘whole-system’ approach in our work. As part of this, as well as adopting an integrated approach, we know that positive student wellbeing is inextricably linked to positive staff wellbeing, and so a group of us (HR, Health and Safety, Sport and Exercise and Wellbeing Services) have started to meet to think about how we can co-ordinate better the work that is being done within the University to improve staff wellbeing, and align this with our plans for student wellbeing.

5 Ways of Wellbeing: A tool guide for students and staff within our community to enhance their own and each other’s wellbeing using 5 steps.

So, if we can support and enable staff to experience positive wellbeing, and to take this with them into their teaching and research, then we anticipate that this will have a positive impact on student wellbeing. This is exciting and important work, which I am looking forward to developing collaboratively.

Increasing numbers of students are disclosing to us, prior to arrival, that they have long-term mental health conditions, and so one element of our strategy is to ensure that our support services are sufficiently resourced to meet the needs of students. The opening of the Wellbeing Centre in early 2020 is an exciting initiative, which will give us more space to deliver individual and group interventions with students. But not all students who experience challenges with their wellbeing need to see a counsellor or a disability adviser. Therefore, we are also investing in and promoting the preventative and early intervention elements of our strategy, such as Mindfulness, Big White Wall, SilverCloud (an online CBT module which will be launched very soon!) and the Feeling Good App (which won the “Supporting Student Wellbeing Award” at the recent Herald Higher Education Awards).

All of these resources are for staff and students. We are reviewing our Mental Health and Wellbeing training programme and designing a digital portal for staff delivering a student support function in the University so that we can improve access and enable more staff to access the right level of training on mental health and wellbeing, such as the excellent Charlie Waller Memorial Trust online materials.

We are rightly encouraging students to come forward as early as possible to tell us that they are experiencing challenges with their mental health, as promoted in the below video: It’s OK not to be OK, produced by the University’s Communications and Marketing Video Team:

All of this work aims to ensure that University staff are confident in listening, are able to recognise when a student is struggling, and have sufficient awareness to signpost them to the right level of support. The University’s current Personal Tutor and Student Support Review is analysing which service model will work best for us, and along with work we are doing with our NHS partners (and colleagues at other Edinburgh universities) to identify how we can support students with more severe mental health difficulties in an integrated way, we are moving in the right direction to establish a ‘whole-system’ approach to mental health and wellbeing at the University of Edinburgh.

This mini-series will showcase some of the current practices undertaken by staff and students across the University, which put wellbeing and mental health at the heart of their learning and teaching.

Andy Shanks

Andy Shanks became the University’s first Director of Student Wellbeing in August 2017, a key appointment in the University’s commitment to delivering an outstanding student experience. Andy’s remit includes leading strategically on student wellbeing and tackling sexual violence, and responsibility for the Counselling Service, the Student Disability Service, the Chaplaincy and the University Pharmacy, as well as for relationships with the University Health Centre.

Originally from Edinburgh, Andy graduated from the University of Manchester in 1994 with a BA (Hons) in Russian and Social Policy. Andy trained and worked as a mental health social worker in London, and was Head of Early Intervention and Social Care for the Older People’s Directorate at the South London and Maudsley Mental Health Trust, and, more recently, was South West Locality Manager at the City of Edinburgh Council, with responsibility for the delivery of integrated, health and social care services in that area of the city. He enjoys watching his daughters playing football and netball, and is a season ticket holder at Hibernian FC.

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