October 10 2018 is World Mental Health Day. In recognition of this, London Higher is hosting an event that will help to signal the commitment that we plan to make towards helping to improve wellbeing and mental health in London’s universities and HE colleges.
So much has been said and written, especially perhaps in the last 12-18 months or so, on the issue of wellbeing and mental health. In June the Government announced a new University Mental Health Charter. The programme was launched in Bristol, where recently public attention has been drawn to the tragedy of ten student suicides in a two year period. National sector organisations including Universities UK, the QAA and Advance HE and Student Minds are stepping up their efforts to move the agenda forward and actively help staff, and/or students.
The Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah, has made his own views clear with a focus on students and the need for leadership from the top. He recently wrote an open letter to VCs and this piece in the Independent is one of a good few that picked up on it. Students are increasingly being encouraged to take their mental health seriously and this guide produced by The Guardian covers student wellbeing, which it claims no league table covers. In the run up to 10 October, the Mental Health Foundation are also exploring student mental health now that the new academic year is in full swing and ‘freshers’ have settled in. This is just a small selection of what has come to our attention.
Wellbeing and mental health are definitely not a matter for higher education alone. This is a society issue and it embraces everyone of any age, background, and wherever they live and whether or not they are working or a student (or both!). It worries me slightly that highlighting student mental health and the importance for HEIs to engage in this (one of the reasons for them needing to act ‘in loco parentis’ from the Ministers viewpoint) might give an impression that the HE sector exists in a bubble.
I am delighted to see so many organisations of different sorts engaging in this agenda and including some of the biggest corporates. Barclays, for instance, who have been very helpful to London Higher as we prepare for our 10 October event, have been sharing how their ‘This is Me’ initiative is developing. This seeks to break down barriers towards mental health in the workplace, and to encourage a more open and supportive culture. This type of initiative is one other organisations (in other sectors) are exploring, or could/should explore.
We are fortunate that, within the London Higher member group, the new Vice Chancellor of the University of Westminster, Dr Peter Bonfield, is very committed to making a difference. Having developed from scratch a network in his previous (non HE) role, he wishes to do the same for London HE. It’s both welcome and unusual, in my (many years) experience to see a new Vice Chancellor engage at the outset with such determination and energy and not only within her/his own institution but more broadly. Peter, however, wants to make improving wellbeing and mental health an explicit priority. On October 10 we will launch a new network for London HEIs which Peter will Chair. Our intention is very much to complement, not duplicate, the good work of others, and to work with partners including amongst others Universities UK, Advance HE, UKActive and the QAA.
In my own case, I have been espousing the wellbeing and mental health agenda for a while. This because I have been on a journey myself (and as my blog of almost a year ago sets out). Not much has changed from a personal perspective in the last year. Except perhaps that I now appreciate much more how physical pain, often severe, and diminished mobility on a daily basis (a total hip replacement is looming) impacts on mental wellbeing.
More importantly, I am more than ever of the view that in HE as elsewhere we need more people in senior/visible roles, including the executive heads and chairs of governing bodies of HEIs, to engage on a more personal basis. It is great to see many heads of HEIs are now keen to talk about what their institution is doing. But in my opinion it would be even more powerful for some to open up about experiences they (or those closest to them) have had and the impact those have had. Hearing personal stories and real life examples strike chords with people in a way that listening to the new charter or toolkit does not (and however helpful or necessary those might be, I hasten to add). Learning how people have been able to navigate a journey that has not been (or isn’t) straightforward, and have reached or are reaching their goals and including for some a senior career role, helps others to realise they can do likewise.
This is a journey that in my view nearly all of us are in the early stages of. There is much we can learn from each other, as well as from individuals and from organisations inside and outside the HE sector in London, the UK and overseas. I am determined that we at London Higher will play our part.
Every one of us can get better at supporting others. Organisations such as Mind and Time to Change are continuing to campaign the mental health agenda. One of the key messages that Time for Change wishes to promote for World Mental Health Day is to ‘Ask Twice’. This because sometimes when asked how they are someone will say they are fine, when actually they are not.
Image reference: Time to change, Resources, 2018 https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/resources/create-download-materials#/~/embed/resources/collection/11