Student mental health at Edinburgh: An introduction from the Director of Student Wellbeing

iStock [a-poselenov]
iStock [a-poselenov]
The theme of student mental health has been covered recently in the national press which has been positive in that this has focused attention on the need for us to work together to enable students to flourish at university. Mental health at universities needs to be everybody’s business and, as outlined within a recent Universities UK report, given its multiple determinants and consequences, this requires a “whole-university approach”- we are looking at how we can achieve this at the University of Edinburgh.

A 2015 YouGov study found that 25% of university students in the UK suffer from mental health problems. Many students come to study at university with pre-existing mental health conditions whilst others experience symptoms of mental ill-health, including feeling increasingly stressed and unable to cope, for the first time after they have started studying at university. For many students, making the transition to university means their former support systems are no longer immediately accessible and so the risk of isolation increases.

As the stigma of mental illness is gradually eroded through effective public health communications campaigns, more students are disclosing that they have challenges with their mental health- this is a good thing because it enables us to help. It is clear from the evidence available that the experience of being a student, and in particular the academic process, places immense pressure on students, both postgraduate and undergraduate. Exams and assignment deadlines are particularly challenging times for students, and postgraduate research students can often experience challenges within their supervisory relationship and as a result of social isolation.

Supporting students to flourish at university- enabling them to maintain positive mental health and a healthy lifestyle- facilitates strong academic outcomes. At the University of Edinburgh, as well as having both Personal Tutor and Student Support Systems in place across all schools and well-established Student Counselling, Student Disability and Chaplaincy Services to support students who are finding it challenging to cope with their pressures, we have an excellent, new Student Mental Health Strategy which makes recommendations for a range of areas of work relating to learning and teaching, and its implementation is gathering momentum.

The Student Counselling Service, the Chaplaincy and the Student Disability Services have experienced a significant increase in demand during recent years, and we need to continue to work collaboratively in an integrated way with Edinburgh University Students’ Association (the Advice Place is a superb resource) and academic services within Schools and Colleges to upskill staff and build capacity within our systems and networks to enable us to manage this. Working in partnership to enable students to access support to deal with their pressures at as early a point as possible (for example through Peer Learning and Support) and pro-actively to manage their mental health is vital in reducing demand and in protecting our specialist resources for those most in need- our Helping Distressed Students information pack provides clear guidance on this. We also need to ensure we have the right systems in place to support staff to manage their own mental health. Looking outwards, effective partnership with NHS Lothian will enable us to consider how mental health care services should be commissioned and delivered to student populations- this is something we plan to work on.

We are in the process of rolling out training to Schools on mental health and how to access help (please contact me for more information on this). Through working together, we can ensure students receive the right help at the right time (including using the Support for Study or Special Circumstances policies) and prevent individual student situations from deteriorating.

I have realised in the early stages of my new role here at the University of Edinburgh that effective, high quality communication is central to all of this- to break down the stigma of mental illness; to ensure we deliver the right level of support at the right time; to empower students to talk about the challenges they experience in relation to learning; and ultimately to enable them to develop strategies to manage their mental health, and to support their friends.

This will be one of the central components of our Mental Health and Wellbeing Week (13th to 20th November inclusive). I hope you can engage and contribute!

Andy Shanks
Andy Shanks became the University’s first Director of Student Wellbeing on 1 August 2017, a key appointment in our commitment to delivering an outstanding student experience.

Andy’s remit includes responsibility for the Counselling Service, the Student Disability Service, the Chaplaincy and the University Pharmacy, and for relationships with the University Health Centre. He has extensive experience of managing and improving dispersed, large scale and high-volume services, and of working collaboratively across boundaries to achieve change and service enhancements.

Andy was Head of 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.

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