Last week I spent a day with instructors from Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England’s instructor community who are working in and with universities. This was my first experience of spending time with instructors as part of my induction. It was a good place to start as higher education is very familiar territory and so I enjoyed spending time listening, hearing and thinking about the part MHFA England training plays in a ‘whole university’ approach to the promotion of staff and student mental health and wellbeing. 

The context 

Mental health of students and staff in universities continues to rise up the agenda. Whilst there is little evidence to show that rates of common mental health issues, distress, or suicide are higher than the rest of the population, there is serious cause for concern. 

There were 95 student deaths by suicide in 2016-17. Many more first years are arriving at university and immediately disclosing mental health issues. Mental health is cited as a significant reason for dropping out of university and there is a continued rise in demand for student support services. 

These statistics about mental health and wellbeing sit against a backdrop of a university sector that has undergone significant change over the past twenty or so years, and continues to be in a period of major change. Some of those changes include; 

  • A shift from polytechnic to universities creating shifts in expectations and resources.
  • The introduction and fast increase in student fees resulting in debts of over £50,000 for students on a three year course as part of the marketisation of HE.
  • Major increases in the number of students participating in higher education and a focus on widening participation of students from different backgrounds.
  • The introduction of the Research Evaluation Framework, and (more recently) the Teaching Excellence Framework.
  • More precarious contracts for early career academics shifts.
  • Changes to international student study visas increasing uncertainty for students and institutions. 
  • The potential impact of Brexit on the higher education sector - research, funding, networks, jobs and student numbers.
  • Changes to pensions on the horizon and much more. 

All of these factors have an influence on the culture and wellbeing of institutions and the psychological contract students and staff have with each other and the institution. 

The MHFA England instructors I met were working in and with institutions ensuring that MHFA England training contributed to increased mental health literacy and wellbeing within institutions. Whilst the contexts were different, it is clear that the impact is greatest where it is part of a strategic university-wide approach to addressing mental health. 

The StepChange Framework

Universities UK has developed a framework to support senior leaders in universities and develop a holistic approach to mental health. Universities need to have a strong understanding of their context in order to develop strategies and approaches that will work for them. 

StepChange identifies key components for success. In summary it sets out the following:

Leadership - making mental health a priority, build support across the staff and student body and make sure resources are available to deliver.
Data and evidence - get a baseline, understand what is happening now and deliver evidence-based interventions.
Measure progress - make sure different interventions are measured and understand as much as you can about what is working.
Training - make sure training is provided for staff and students.
Prevention and early intervention - build positive cultures and strategies to promote positive wellbeing.
Support - ensure signposting to services, that services are available, that academic policies align with the approach and that a crisis plan is in place to deal with crisis situations.
Transitions - make sure mental health is part of the transition process into university and out of university into further study or employment.
Partnerships - build partnerships with other organisations who can provide support and services. 

Mental Health First Aid in Universities

It is within this context, culture and a ‘whole university’ approach that MHFA England training makes a real contribution to improving the mental health and wellbeing of staff and students. It does this by raising mental health awareness and mental health literacy, empowering people to spot the signs and symptoms of mental health difficulties, and giving staff and students confidence, knowledge and skills to start conversations and signpost to support and services. 

Last week I heard some really exciting stories of instructors working with academic and support staff and students. One instructor described their work with students on healthcare courses, embedding learning about mental health and MHFA England training into their courses, which is of course essential if we are to achieve parity of esteem. 

We look forward to collaborating with Universities UK, and with Student Minds as they develop their Mental Health Charter for universities. My thanks to all the instructors who attended the session, and to the MHFA England team who organised it. I really enjoyed spending time with and learning from the instructors who are delivering training week in, week out. 

I am also looking forward to spending some more time with instructors over the coming months to learn more about the excellent work they are doing across different settings doing our bit as the MHFA England community to improve the mental health literacy, and mental health of the nation.