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Improving student mental health through coping strategies and cultural change


Despite the many hurdles faced by university students today, there are plenty of ways in which universities can support the mental wellbeing of students, said Ruth Caleb, Head of Counselling at Brunel University London. 

On Wednesday 28 June, Ruth addressed the Festival of Higher Education, held at the University of Buckingham – an audience of staff from Higher Education and Further Education, policymakers, journalists, students and fellow presenters. 

Calling upon her nearly 30 years of counselling experience, including 17 years of leadership at Brunel, Ruth’s presentation, ‘Higher Education in crisis – coping strategies or cultural change?’, started by framing the challenges faced by universities and their students. 

An increasing proportion of students are suffering from stress, depression or other mental health problems. At Brunel, the number of students coming to the Counselling service has more than doubled in the last 8 years: a rise which is mirrored by services throughout the UK. And because many students prefer not to disclose mental ill health, any figures are likely to be a considerable underestimate. 

The increase in serious and complex mental health problems faced by students has been exacerbated by the media, who refer to a ‘mental health crisis’ and a ‘lost generation’. With financial strain, long working hours, problems at home and the loss of usual support networks (including the result of a reduction in NHS resources) all presenting hurdles, there are indeed plenty of challenges faced by this generation. 

“International, European and UK students, including those from a widening participation background, all face their own particular challenges,” said Ruth, who is also Chair of the Universities UK 'Mental Wellbeing in Higher Education' Working Group.

“And on top of these problems, the psychological pressure from social media causes students to feel that they need to be constantly in touch with all their contacts, looking fantastic and having a wonderful time, with photographs to prove it. This pressure was a recurring theme throughout the day’s presentations and discussions.” 

Universities have always been at the forefront of support for mental health and wellbeing of their students, and most offer a wide range of supportive services. But Ruth declared that universities need to acknowledge that the student profile has changed – and that supporting students is not just the job of Student Support services. However, there is the need for a culture change that engages all, including senior managers. 

Ruth’s recommendations included: 

  • providing close support at every stage of student life – not just induction for freshers 
  • creating excellent peer support, including buddies, contacts, residence and academic mentors 
  • challenging mental health stigma at every level, including senior management and students themselves 
  • forming external partnerships with local NHS and voluntary services 
  • helping children at school, college and in their families to learn the skills and qualities they require for mental wellbeing and resilience, so that they can flourish in their university – academically and also in terms of their personal development. 

“Most importantly, we need to build a true sense of community,” said Ruth. “Students need to feel known, cared about and respected. So do staff members. This is the culture that we all need to work towards.” 

Brunel University London's Counselling service is available to all Brunel students and staff. Visit our Counselling page for further information.

Reported by:

Joe Buchanunn, Media Relations