Western Mail column: Focusing on the mental health and wellbeing of students in Wales
On World Mental Health Day we were delighted to launch our new student mental health toolkit, which we have developed in partnership with the National Union of Students in Wales (NUS Wales).
Deputy Minister for Skills Ken Skates AM launched the toolkit at the University of South Wales Students' Union to an audience of student representatives from further and higher education. He spoke passionately about student mental health and wellbeing, reflecting on his own experience at university and announcing that the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) would be extending Mental Health First Aid training to all staff in Welsh higher education.
Attendees reflected on the challenges facing many students, including financial pressures, new environments and the need to balance lectures and essays with employment, social activities or family and caring responsibilities. In addition, many first year undergraduates also move away from home, leaving their family, friends and support networks behind. It is easy to become isolated and difficult to know where to find help. It can be especially tough for the thousands of international students who face the added challenges of a new country, culture and/or language.
At an NUS Wales training event earlier this year, representatives recognised that many students experience mental health problems for the first time at college or university and told us that they wanted to be better equipped to support them. They were all passionate about mental health and wellbeing but felt that many of them and their peers did not have enough awareness, knowledge or understanding of this issue. They said that they wanted to be better prepared and informed to support and signpost students, as well as more confident to talk about mental health problems and campaign for improved mental health and wellbeing on campus. They were also keen to break down the stigma surrounding mental health problems and secure training for staff and students.
As a result of these discussions we developed a twelve page information booklet for students and a series of briefings for students' union representatives. The student information booklet provides information, myths and facts about mental health and some ‘talking tips’ to help and encourage students to talk openly about mental health problems. It also includes a range of national helplines and information about accessing local primary mental health support services. The students’ union officer briefing includes information about mental health issues, advice about supporting students with mental health problems and campaign ideas for increasing the provision of student support services and improving student mental health and wellbeing.
The toolkit was well received and many student reps said that it couldn't have come at a better time, with the financial climate putting individuals under increased pressure and public sector cuts leading colleges and universities to re-assess their spending on student support services. They spoke about the difference that these services can make to students' mental health and wellbeing, as well as their ability to remain in education and achieve their full potential. In addition, the Royal College of Psychiatrists report 'Mental Health of Students in Higher Education' stated that over 80% of respondents to a recent survey of UK higher education institutions reported that demand for mental health provision had significantly increased over the previous 5 years. It is clear that colleges and universities need to increase their investment in student support provision, not cut existing services.
However, they also need to take a whole person approach by ensuring that all aspects of student life promote good mental health and wellbeing, through affordable, quality accommodation, accessible academic and financial support services, inclusive extra-curricular activities and family friendly policies and practices. Further and higher education institutions can also demonstrate their support for ending stigma and discrimination by signing the Time to Change Wales organisational pledge, which was launched last week. The Welsh Government, Hywel Dda Health Board, Cardiff and Vale University Health Board, Powys Teaching Health Board, Legal and General, Arriva Trains Wales, the DVLA and Welsh Water were the first to formally pledge their support, but we know that several universities have been in touch with Time to Change Wales and hope to sign up later this year.
'Together for Mental Health' emphasises the need for all sectors to take responsibility for improving mental health and wellbeing in Wales. We're delighted that so many student leaders are ready to step up to the challenge and we hope that the post-16 education sector can unite behind this aim.
More information about the TTCW organisational pledge can be found at www.timetochangewales.org.uk