By Roisin McCallion | VP Welfare & Equal Opportunities
Over the past few of years, the dialogue around student mental health has changed, that is to say, it has commenced. Thanks to organisations such as Student Minds and campaigning from cohort upon cohort of dedicated student activists, institutions are finally having to acknowledge that there is indeed a problem and that the mental wellbeing of their students simply cannot be ignored. This progress is welcome, however, the form in which it has appeared still leaves something to be desired.
As exam season approaches, we see once again campaigns with titles such as ‘Stress Less’ being rolled out. This year, the university has launched a new Exam Wellbeing hub, offering practical advice and resources. Whilst this is welcome and provides information which can indeed be very helpful, it fails to acknowledge that maybe the problem lies with the exams themselves. It takes the onus away from problems at an institutional level and rather places blame on students themselves. In line with the ‘university students are snowflakes’ narrative, what is meant to be helpful instead simply suggests that mental distress is caused by a lack of skills and ‘resilience’ in the students of today; it promotes the idea that students are struggling because they are not ‘tough’ enough and should learn to withstand the distress, as opposed to a genuine attempt at improving the flawed system which caused the problem in the first place.
This is not to say that there is no benefit to promoting self-soothing and emotional resilience techniques. There is most certainly a place for them, but they are a very small part of the solution. In the context of the student mental health crisis they are largely useless without systemic change. This means changes in the curriculum, diversification of assessment methods and increased cultural competency and increased support for those students from low-income and other widening participation backgrounds to name but a few things.
Universities UK and Student Minds both advocate for what they call the ‘step-change’ approach which encompasses the ideas I have discussed above: making changes within every level of the university in order to improve student mental health as opposed to solely seeing the crisis as a task for welfare services to mitigate once the damage has already been done. It has been pleasing to see Oxford University commit to this approach in the Student Wellbeing and Mental Health Strategy launched last term, stating they will “review how course design can take student wellbeing and mental health into account”, “promote and embed inclusive teaching and learning practices across the collegiate university” and “promote diversity of assessment for taught courses”. It is vital that these commitments are honoured, and changes made as soon as possible for whilst the current system is in place, no amount of stress reducing activities, advice and service will prevent the suffering we are seeing amongst our student population.