Universities UK publish Minding Our Future report on student mental health

Universities UK - the umbrella group for universities - have just published (11 May 2018) a new report Minding Our Future: starting a conversation about the support of student mental health which sets out proposals for creating 'place-based' local partnerships among universities, local authorities, local NHS providers. and third sector services. This is a worthy ambition to create more joined-up mental health services for students at university and to try to prevent people slipping through the net, for example, as students start at university for the first time they may be leaving behind the local access to any mental health services they might have had whilst at home.

However, the report to my mind misses expanding on a key area for action (while recognising its importance), and that is prevention - the need for delivering long-term resilience skills training, including basic psycho-education about mental health to all students from the moment they start, and the means by which you might actually do that. These skills need to be delivered as basic transferable skills, in the same vein as, say, basic bibliographic skills are delivered on using library databases. This can then have the double benefit of not just delivering skills training and greater self-efficacy, but also removing the stigma of talking about mental health issues right from the start - it allows an open conversation about the issues among the students, and staff. And as a student you don't have to go looking for help, it's there from the start.

Many of the longer term ambitions of 'Minding Our Future' are likely to require significant additional resources from local authorities, the NHS and from universities, and so inevitably take time to put in place, if those resources are forthcoming. In the meantime students continue to have major problems and delays in accessing treatment, even for things that are readily treatable and/or preventable.  But resilience skills training, including basic understanding of the relationships between thoughts, feelings and behaviour, mindfulness, relaxation and other skills training could be delivered at low cost by universities themselves by tapping in to a vast army of registered private therapists that are out there dealing with students on a day-to-day basis.  Commissioning such local provision - to supplement hard-pressed, in-house counselling services - could make a huge difference. This is not an alternative to the needs of those already suffering with severe mental health issues.  But a few hours of skills training to ALL students can equip many students with the skills necessary to deal with so many basic forms of anxiety and low mood/low self-esteem issues themselves, prevent them escalating and so avoid the medicalisation of their issues (when often they don't need to be) and/or the need for referral to formal mental health services when things have gone too far.

My own experience of delivering Relaxation and Resilience (R&R) skills training at Imperial College London, as well as at the University of Manchester, to students at all levels, has had excellent feedback; many use the techniques offered to great effect, and beyond their time at university.  Here are just a few examples of recent feedback:

".....the R&R sessions were an incredible addition to the course."
"I thoroughly enjoyed Bill's relaxation lectures - I have not experienced anything like it before and it definitely helped with my stress levels throughout the intense first term."
"Relaxation and Resilience sessions [were] particularly helpful....."
"Bill's relaxation sessions were a great addition to help teach us ways to remain mindful and cope with the stresses of Masters life."
"Thanks Bill for the great sessions on relaxation and resilience. It helped so much just to know that people cared about this topic, the recordings were really helpful and what a relief when you can just meditate off to somewhere warm and nice before exams!!"
"Super cool idea to do this and the students as a whole really enjoyed it!"
"Great lectures on rest and relaxation, very useful."
"Having had CBT for anxiety in the past I was able to understand some of the methods Bill was using and why he chose to use them. It's excellent that time has been found to include them on our course."
"R+R really helpful, not just for this term but for life!"

It's this preventive approach to mental health through delivering basic resilience skills training as part of transferable skills that is needed urgently in universities if we are to allow our students to properly thrive now and into the rest of their life.


Bill Sheate, 13 May 2018