Promoting student mental health at university necessitates changes in students’ educational and residential environments: A conversation with Professor Juliet Foster
In January 2022, research carried out by Student Minds, the leading student mental health charity in the UK, highlighted that 64% of undergraduate and postgraduate students felt that the pandemic had negatively impacted their mental health, and 52% of the respondents felt lonely or isolated during the recent Autumn term, yet 47% of the students with experience of mental health issues said they had no intention of disclosing this to their university.
Student mental health at universities has been a growing concern in recent years. I am a research assistant at the Stress, Psychiatry and Immunology lab, and I had the opportunity to talk to Professor Juliet Foster, the Dean of Education at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN) and the the academic lead for King’s College London (KCL) on student mental health and wellbeing. I started by asking her how she became involved with student mental health.
“When I was appointed to King’s, it was specifically written into my job description that I had a particular role around student mental health and wellbeing. This included integrating some of the research conducted at the IoPPN with student support services and other services.”
Different initiatives at KCL
KCL aim to develop the best practices and implement them because of the excellent research at the IoPPN. The Student Mental Health Research Network (SMaRteN), led by Dr. Nicola Byrom, has helped address some big evidence gaps related to young people’s mental health and build the momentum for research in this field at KCL. The network is also a part of a recent initiative, in collaboration with Transforming Access & Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO), Student minds, What works centre of wellbeing, AMOSSHE and Universities UK, to develop a central database to understand what kind of interventions work better to improve student mental health at university.
This led to us discussing the different initiatives present at KCL to support student wellbeing.
“KCL is one of the first universities to develop a sector-leading Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Report and Strategic Plan, based on the idea of a triangle of support.”
At the bottom the triangle are initiatives such as mindfulness sessions and curriculum embedded approaches, which may help all students regardless of whether they identify as having a mental health problems. In the middle of the triangle are students who potentially might need additional support, such as the availability of counselling and disability services. Moving on to the top of the triangle are specific support services for students who are enduring more acute or severe mental health problems. At this level, it is important to recognize the boundaries of what the university can provide, along with other specialist services and the NHS. KCL has strong relationships with the South London and Maudsley Foundation Trust and other NHS trusts which enable the students and staff to seek the support they require.
Furthermore, recent work at KCL, funded by the Office for Students and in collaboration with Advanced HE, Universities of Derby, Aston University and Student mind, helped develop the Education for Mental Health toolkit, an easy-to-use guide for academics and staff who develop the course curriculum and deliver it to students and want to embed mental health into their curriculum.
One of Prof. Foster’s favourite sections of this toolkit is on belonging and connectedness.
“It looks at how to build good positive relationships within the classroom between students, but also between the academic and the students as well, and this also includes establishing the boundaries that are required as part of that working relationship. One of the reasons why it is my favourite sections is because I do think it can be implemented by anybody in a classroom setting, regardless of whether they have developed the content or are delivering it.”
Mental health support in universities is not just about the availability of support services, although that’s one important pillar. It’s also about the educational settings, how students learn, the physical environments that students live in, the broader university environment, as well as staff mental health. These are the pillars of the University Mental Health Charter, which KCL is a part of. The University Mental Health Charter, which Prof. Foster considers as a game changer in this sector, built a set of evidence-informed principles to support universities to adopt a whole-university approach to mental health and wellbeing.
“You join the programme and attend workshops, share best practice with other institutions and discuss how university governance works for mental health across the board. It is an exciting collaborative effort.
The charter also recognises that there is work that has never been attempted, and we are never at the end of the journey in this sector.”
The effect of the pandemic on student mental health
This charter was published at the beginning of 2020, along with a revision of the Universities UK and Stepchange report and numerous significant developments to help address student mental health.
The pandemic, however, dampened this spirit, but drove universities to reform how they provide current support services.
“We [at KCL] moved counselling appointments online, KCL residences undertook initiatives for students who were stuck in residences and who couldn’t get home, King’s Sport moved all of their classes online within 24 hours and they were getting huge engagement, and the pandemic enabled us to push for innovation in some ways.”
Of course, the pandemic also exacerbated the situation for a lot of students. Not only has it affected their mental health, but it has worsened the financial situation, home life and learning.
Prof. Foster believes that the consequences of the pandemic would be visible in students who join universities for the next 10 years, and universities have to work harder to make the transition period between school and university easier for students.
“However, what strikes me is that we haven’t seen a wholesale shift as a result of the pandemic, we’ve just seen an exaggeration of issues that were already present.”
Therefore, after the pandemic, universities need to build on the innovations that arose during this period, whilst returning to the position that they were in 2020 and nurture new initiatives in this field.
Future aims and challenges in this sector
Prof. Foster also hopes for more progress in the development of a whole-university approach to mental health.
“To provide services around curriculum, physical environment and staff wellbeing, requires staff time and money, which has been a prevalent challenge. I would love to see more funding made available specifically for universities to apply for initiatives, where they could really show that they were using it to develop a more robust system.
I sat on the Student Futures Commission to look at how to best support students after the pandemic and one of the recommendations was that additional government funding could be made available for universities.”
On the other hand, there is also a need to understand the boundaries of what comes under the university’s jurisdiction when it comes to student mental health. Some staff members feel like universities were developed to teach students and shouldn’t have a strong focus on mental health. However, only when student feel good will they perform well, therefore, these initiatives are important to help change students’ lives.
Prof. Foster’s tips on navigating through academia
I concluded my interview by asking Prof. Foster, who is a social psychologist by training, about her academic experience and suggestions for women and early career researchers.
“I really enjoy my original research area of sociocultural psychology, but it has been quite niche and is never going to attract a massive amount of funding. I was really interested in education and student welfare and I took up other roles as well, and that has led me to use my research skills in other ways too.
My progression in academia hasn’t been very traditional, but I think it is important to realise that there are different ways in which you can carve out your space within academia. Don’t think that there isn’t any scope if you don’t follow a particular trajectory because there are different ways of doing things.”
Indeed, Prof. Foster leads by example when she says this, both in terms of her academic career, as well as with her unique approach in steering different student mental health and wellbeing initiatives at KCL.