Embrace technology and embed wellbeing into university life, calls Jisc report

More than half of student respondents reported that their mental health had deteriorated in an Autumn survey conducted by Jisc

Edtech non-profit Jisc have launched a new report in partnership with Emerge Education, calling for universities to embrace technology and embed wellbeing practices into university life in a bid to address the growing student mental health crisis.

Last year, a survey from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed the extent to which ongoing COVID-19 lockdown restrictions are negatively impacting student mental health in England; of the 2,000 university students surveyed, more than half (57%) claimed that their mental health and wellbeing had taken a hit during the Autumn term, while 63% felt that the pandemic presented a big or significant threat to their mental or physical health.

The student and staff wellbeing report, published yesterday (28 January), states that attaining a mentally healthy higher education community requires a shift away from a ‘reactive crisis management model’ to one that embeds wellbeing initiatives across institutions and curricula via the use of innovative technology. It notes that such an approach would also allow universities to provide continued support to staff and students who are isolated – either due to lockdown, geography or disability.

“Technology is a key enabler of the whole university approach to mental health, providing new opportunities to identify those in difficulty, to connect, to influence behaviours and to deliver support,” writes John de Pury, assistant director of Universities UK. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, university staff have been working at pace to transform support services, by. moving counselling and advice online, building digital communities, and developing new services to meet new needs. Throughout they have worked in close partnership with digital providers who have brought commitment and expertise to the shared objective that UK universities emerge from the pandemic as healthy settings, enabling all students and all staff to thrive and succeed to the best of their potential.”

“There is a lot we can do digitally now, and we have flexibly changed our service so that at least 85% is a digital offering” – Mark Sawyer, head of student wellbeing and welfare, University of Exeter

Case studies from Middlesex, UCEM, Exeter, Manchester and Nottingham Trent universities demonstrate how apps, tools and platforms are already improving mental fitness and informing the student generation, offering valuable resources and discussion forums. Many also provide therapy and intervention where needed, and some support other areas where wellbeing is a concern – such as finance and personal safety.

Mark Sawyer, head of student wellbeing and welfare at the University of Exeter, notes in the report: “There is a lot we can do digitally now, and we have flexibly changed our service so that at least 85% is a digital offering. If it needs to be face-to-face, it tends to be students for whom digital just doesn’t work. We can now access students that we wouldn’t usually, offering the appropriate support, advice and guidance to students.”

While the result comes with many benefits for the entire higher education community, the process of embedding digital wellbeing services comes with its own challenges. Students might not have access to an appropriate space to talk privately and comfortably engage through video, for example, or might have a disability that makes it hard to navigate online resources.

The report lays out four key recommendations to handle these complications, including:

  • Wellbeing is for everyone: a whole population approach – we are all affected by our mental wellbeing and that of others
  • Wellbeing is a lifelong project: a whole life approach – wellbeing doesn’t start when students first enrol at university and stop as soon as they graduate; it’s a lifelong learning process that requires lifelong skills development to build resilience
  • Wellbeing is embedded in all activities: a whole curriculum approach – universities are health organisations as well as learning institutions; for individuals to thrive and learn, health gain can’t be separated from learning gain
  • Wellbeing is a collective endeavour: a whole university approach – the whole university approach values the contribution of all, moving wellbeing away from being a sole concern of student health and mental health support services and involves the entire community; a process which requires sustained effort and leadership

Nic Newman, Emerge Education partner, commented: “Universities have proved they can transition to online delivery at impressive speed, improving digital skills, and supporting students by teaching them in a new format during a uniquely stressful time. There has never been a more crucial time to support staff and student wellbeing. This report shows that by supporting students and staff with the right wellbeing tools, skills and support, and by using technology as a conduit, we can work together to ease and eventually curb the student and staff mental health crisis.”

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