Whose needs are really being met by talk of a "student mental health crisis"​?

 

 

I left Wonkhe's excellent Wonkfest conference yesterday with one of the many interesting discussions ("Crisis, what crisis? Is student mental health really a "no brainer"?) uppermost in my mind.

 

All panel members in the debate seemed to reject, or at least feel uncomfortable with, the notion that we are facing a crisis in student mental health. I instinctively agreed, but had not yet pinned down in my own mind why it felt important to reject this notion of a sector-wide "crisis".

 

For sure, the term "crisis" has a place when we talk about student mental health. Its place is in conversations about individual students, who, in some cases, can certainly be in "crisis" and demand a response from their university which accords with this level of urgency and risk. Yet, applying this term “crisis” with a broad brush to describe the student population in general feels wrong to me.

 

A key piece of evidence cited for the "crisis" is that students are requesting mental health support from their universities in record numbers. And they are. But does increased demand equal “crisis”? What if record numbers of students were to access library support or request careers advice? Would such trends be evidence of a "crisis in student reading" or a "student employability crisis"? Of course not. They would be viewed as positives; signs that students are taking responsibility and engaging with the facilities and support in place in our universities.

 

The language of "crisis” in describing students en masse reflects two things.

 

First, it reflects our general sense of discomfort around issues of mental health. Personally, our lack of confidence when it comes to talking and thinking about mental health might, in part, explain why we are ready to jump from steady state to "crisis" in the space of a few academic cycles, and just a three- or four-fold increase in student help-seeking. (As an aside, any manager in HE, whatever their role, who wouldn't feel confident talking about student mental health issues should, in my view, be picking up the phone to their head of counselling or head of student services and offering to meet for a coffee, to hear about how things are.)

 

 

Our lack of confidence when it comes to talking and thinking about mental health might, in part, explain why we are ready to jump from steady state to "crisis" in the space of a few academic cycles.

 

 

Secondly, this language of "crisis" reflects (and, at the same time, deflects attention away from) the fact that we are not always as confident as we should be about our institutional responses in this space - in particular, the design and delivery of our pastoral and specialist support structures.

 

In a warped manner, talk of a "crisis" in student mental health might be shielding some of us from having to think seriously about how we need to re-engineer or review the support we provide, because we might (wrongly) perceive the problem as one that is bigger than any service review or additional investment can address. The problem isn't us....it's the sector-wide "crisis"!

 

Even mental health specialists working in HE can become somewhat addicted to the drama of the sector-wide "crisis"; some of us feel all we can do is try to cope, like thrill-seekers strapped into a roller-coaster that won't stop going, even though, if we were honest with ourselves, we'd admit the thrill was replaced by a sense of struggle and dread some years back. Burnout is sadly not uncommon among specialist staff in higher education institutions that have not invested in, and re-modelled, their mental health support services to reflect the growth in student demand and the increase in clinical risk being presented by students.

 

 

Even mental health specialists working in HE can become somewhat addicted to the drama of the "crisis"...like thrill-seekers strapped into a roller-coaster that won't stop going...

 

 

The more this language of "crisis" takes root, the more we risk tolerating failings in our pastoral support structures as inevitable features of our crisis landscape. For the sake of individual students too, we must be careful not to weaken the language of "crisis" through overuse. We must not get to the point where we have talked so much about "crisis" that we fail to spot those who are genuinely in crisis and needing a corresponding level and urgency of response.

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