March 1st was an awareness day. University Mental Health Day to be precise. This is the national campaign for promoting the mental health of people who live, work and study in Higher Education. Beginning in 2012, it’s run by Student Minds and UMHAN the University Mental Health Advisers Network and a flurry of postings highlighted the range of issues this might involve.
The THES posted University Mental Health Day: the weight of expectations addressing how pressure to perform, alongside a lack of institutional support, can have severe effects on mental health.
HEPI offered Who supports academics? ‘No one. No one. Literally no one.’ a guest blog written by Poppy Brown who also authored the 2016 HEPI report into The invisible problem? Improving students’ mental health
Whether you’re learning, teaching or researching, it seems higher education is bad for you.
None of this is new. There’s been growing media coverage over the past year. The Guardian’s contributions included It’s time for universities to put student mental health first while Anonymous Academic covered bullying in the work place, trolling on social media, and declaring a disability. In January WONKHE published Academics under pressure: the invisible frontline in student mental health which highlights the problems of the next step – once someone has admitted to needing support where should they be advised to go and who has responsibility for getting this right. The WonkHE piece links to the Research and Publications page of StudentMinds where there’s the findings of a report titled Student Mental Health: The Role and Experiences of Academics
Well worth a read.
Anyone thinking of going to university o study or work would do well to take note. Higher education in the 21st century might not be what you think.
It wasn’t so many years a go I met someone who declared envy of my work in higher education. It must be wonderful, she said, to be surrounded by so much knowledge, to work alongside people who think for a living, to be in a place where books matter.
It’s only when you try to tell the truth you realise how difficult the truth can be.
This is my 18th year in HE and to say I’ve seen changes is a massive understatement. The biggest has to be the introduction of the NSS, REF and TEF bringing with them an audit and impact culture, but there’s also been the increasing diversity of student cohorts, stress on employability, on internationalism and throughout it all the relentless cutting back of resources. Oh, and the digitisation of university systems with an increase in administrative function. It isn’t only the rhetorical promise of the VLE to reduce costs and increase efficiency which is lies, all lies.
Staff in HE today struggle with increasing cuts and reductions alongside a relentless rise in bureaucratic expectations and – this is where I have to hold up my hand and admit I’m guilty – the expectations they will all seamlessly adopt Technology Enhanced Learning into their pedagogy and practice.
Pedagogy and practice can be anomalous. I don’t like generic statements but it’s true that many academics are employed for their subject expertise and research specialisms rather than knowledge of pedagogic design and digital capabilities – but we ask – expect – assume this of them.
Over the past two decades there’s been a shift in emphasis towards the student experience but what does this phrase mean? Does anyone know?
Have students – in their own eyes at least – become customers paying for a service?
Is fear of the NSS really preventing innovation and experimentation?
It’s no wonder stress levels are rising.
Then there’s data – which has become the new VLE.
Read the Dearing Report into the Future of Higher Education and substitute data for every mention of VLE or C&IT (always liked how Communication came before Information – so interesting how the I became privileged). If you read data or learning analytics instead the promise remains – be it improvement, enhancement, transformation or revolution, the rhetoric continues.
As do conflicting views on the value of higher education. In 1959 C. P. Snow gave the Rede Lecture entitled The Two Cultures where he claimed “the intellectual life of the whole of western society” was split between the sciences and the humanities. Over the years this argument has been challenged and supported in different ways, not least by Snow himself but two weeks ago the UK Government spectacularly re-lit the fire, suggesting tuition fees for humanities and the arts should be cheaper than those for STEM subjects.
I started this blog because I wanted to highlight the issues of mental health in higher education. Whether you are learning, teaching or researching you’re at risk and once you begin to tell truths you realise, with increasing anxiety for the future, just how large and difficult these truths are.
I wanted to point out how research into the mental health of PhD students suggests they are the most stressed of all. So far, the research I’ve read is based on f/t study yet nearly everyone I know taking a PhD is doing it p/t alongside f/t work. I want to suggest this often isolated and forgotten about group may be at even more risk of developing symptoms of stress and fatigue.
At the University of Northampton where my PhD is registered, we’ve set up SuCCEED@ (Supporting the PhD Community to Collaborate and Emotionally Engage in Digital Shifts at Level 8) The group aims include supporting the mental health of PhD students, in particular those studying p/t and at a distance. Were also on Twitter @Succeedat8
I wanted to blog about coping mechanisms like these are dependent on digital literacies and confidence and how the rhetorical promise of TEL does not address diversity of use and digital shyness or resistance. In the same was stress on the educational experience of students does not address any absence of pedagogic or digital confidence of staff who teach and support learning.
My worry is the current highlighting of mental health issues of staff and students will not address realistic and manageable solutions. All the issues named here need more than what we’ve done so far, they need more than application of training techniques or coping mechanisms. It will take fundamental structural change to make change happen. There are not enough workshops or yoga positions in the world to make this happen.
images from pixabay or my own