To say that 2020 was a difficult year for all of us is an understatement. Indeed, the word "unprecedented" was so often used, we stopped listening. Many of us experienced lockdown, had to develop and learn new skills, put courses online very quickly, rethink our pedagogy and assessment as well as negotiate the pleasures of Zoom or Skype.
Despite this or in spite of it, we've responded and delivered courses. Student learning did not stop, but it was different. It tested everyone's resilience, but reinforced our commitment to students. Student wellbeing is a challenge, but it's also a central responsibility of what we do in any education setting.
In the online panel session on 'Student Wellbeing in 2021', I had the honour and pleasure of discussing this topic with four engaging experts: Professor Patrick McGorry, Executive Director of Orygen and Professor of Youth Mental Health at the University of Melbourne; Professor Anne Duffy, Academic Psychiatrist at Queen's University; Dr Deirdre Pickerell, Dean of Student Success, Yorkville University/Toronto Film School; and Professor Kylie Readman: Pro Vice Chancellor (Education) at Murdoch University.
Each panelist shared their extensive expertise and honest opinions with the hundreds of university leaders and academics in attendance, and some key themes and takeaways emerged.
We're facing a 'rising tide' of demand for mental health support
Said Prof Anne Duffy, "the increasing demand from students for mental health, welfare and support is a global phenomena, and it preceded the pandemic and has been amplified by the pandemic. It's interesting sitting at different universities, from different countries with really different student populations - but it's the same conversation: what should we be doing? How should we be doing it? It needs to have a racialised, multifaceted, multidisciplinary approach because what some students will need, in terms of mental health support, is going to be quite different from other students. It's not one homogeneous population in that sense to serve.
We've done quite a lot of work in Canada, and around the world, on reducing stigma around mental health and mental illness. It's possibly contributed to the tide of student demand for service and support. If you're going to destigmatise things, you better be ready. And I don't think we have been as ready as we could have been. Students are saying, 'you've asked me to come, you've asked me to reach out, now what's on offer?' So now we're stuck with the 'what's on offer' part."
Prof Kylie Readman agreed, "The normal stresses that university students face remained, but the pandemic has added an extra layer of stress to that. Financial stress, loss of casual jobs, loss of accommodation, food was an issue for our students, access to the Internet to study, university fees. International students are worried about families back in home countries that aren't doing so well with the pandemic.
That's been exacerbated as time goes on. And I don't think we can underestimate the impact of the death toll rising internationally, an increasing number of students dealing with grief; family members and friends dying from COVID. And so obviously, when they're in a state of vulnerable mental health, more crises, more hospitalisations, acute mental health presentations take place."
Speaking to the data and research available, Prof Pat McGorry pointed out that this 'rising tide' of mental ill-health in young people was happening before the pandemic, and isn't explicitly linked to it.
"You can see it with the pandemic, because - in Australia anyway, and probably other countries as well - the wellbeing of people suffered. People's mental health suffered a lot, but not everyone developed a mental illness. There was a possibly a finite increase in mental illness and mental ill-health, but the most universal thing was a loss of wellbeing. So the two things are not the same. And the link between the two is not as simplistic as people seem to believe."
Speaking about responsibility, Prof Anne Duffy commented "Universities are increasingly recognising that supporting student wellbeing and promoting student good mental health is a priority that we all must share in the university community, and is directly related to our educational mandate with clear benefit for our students as well as for larger society.
"Universities are increasingly recognising that supporting student wellbeing and promoting student good mental health is a priority that we all must share in the university community"
In the midst of the pandemic, with remote learning and learning from home, it's going to be even more complicated to have a sense of membership, belongingness and association with your university community."
So what can universities do, and what are they doing, to address some of these issues (both during COVID and looking beyond?)
Joined-up services for students - a whole institute approach
Universities can be very siloed places, but Dr Deirdre Pickerell says that at Yorkville University, her Student Success Unit has circumvented those silos, despite the jurisdictional challenges of having multiple dispersed campuses. "We have been able to bring together services that were quite dispersed around the institution, relating to career services, tutoring, more importantly, academic accommodations and mental health and wellbeing.
As a result, we've been able to broaden and really quadruple services, and make sure they're available to all students, rather than subsets of students. And we've also made sure that students have access to a broad range of mental health services, not just one-on-one counselling, but really looking at a much more holistic approach across all of the interventions and services and departments that students might engage with.
My unit is one of the only units that is system wide. So it doesn't really matter what programme a student is attached to- they all are streamed to the Student Success Unit in terms of their mental health and wellness. That has not been without its problems, but when we want to do an intervention or engage with one of the academic teams or one of the programmes, we can because we're known as this overarching unit. I think that has helped."
Students as partners and co-designers of solutions
Empowering students to not only be a 'part of' the conversation around their wellbeing, but to drive it, was one of the most unifying aspects of the discussion.
Said Dr Deirdre Pickerell, "Some of the services that we have through Student Success have been at specific request of students. The peer support groups actually came from students, they said 'we don't want to talk one on one. We want to do this in groups. Can we come together so that we can talk about the shared experience?' And because of the fact that this unit doesn't exist within the silos, we were able to pull that together and have programme specific groups, but also allow students to mingle across programmes."
Prof Anne Duffy added, "We do need to continue to always partner with the students who are seeking help, and take their feedback and capture the diversity of opinions and needs. Students want it - they want a place that's accessible on campus, that's student-tailored, student-specific, in partnership with students. They don't want to go off campus because they just won't have time, or won't go. It's not their village, it's not their community. But they do want something that's engaging, that feels like it reflects and resonates with them."
"The people that have helped us the most have been the young people themselves, in helping us to design the right models of care."
And indeed, speaking from experience of doing so, Prof Pat McGorry agreed, "The people that have helped us the most have been the young people themselves, in helping us to design the right models of care. All young people are the same in the sense that they don't want to think like psychiatrists in partitioning themselves into different labels or boxes. So you do have to have a common entry point.
We have a staging model of care so we try to prevent people's problems worsening, it's a preventive model and that's why it's compatible with the mental health promotion language that we're all using. But behind that, we've got to have this really hard-nosed idea. How do we prevent these young people getting worse and developing more clear-cut psychiatric illnesses, which come out of the primordial soup, if you will, of anxiety, depression and struggling with grades and stuff? It all looks the same initially. So, you've got to have a common entry point, which is very low stigma and co-design. And then you can sort out back of house, what's the stream of care, what's the specialisation like? It isn't a one size fits all, but you've got to make it look at the front-end like it's a one size fits all. That's what we've learnt from the young people."
But if you're going to partner with students, it can't be in a token way, Prof McGorry continued. "I think you’ve gotta give them some power. You must give them a role, not just listen to them and take their advice and run with it, but you involve them at every stage. And universities may not be that great at that. They're a little bit hierarchical."
Institutional change to better help students
Although it was agreed that 'bigger stakeholders' need to come to the table, and that universities aren't solely responsible for the mental health and wellbeing of their students, all the panelists had ideas about how institutions could be doing more, or different, things to help promote wellbeing, for both staff and students.
"I think one of the most powerful things is being proactive," said Prof Kylie Readman, "one of the things that we haven't talked about very much is intentionally designed curriculum, an engaging curriculum. And it’s part of the mental health framework. It's something that all academic staff who are teaching are involved in. I'm thinking really about enhancing student emotion and positive sort of psychosocial responses around motivation, self efficacy, identity, that actually can support students as successful learners. Increasing student engagement, reducing the impact of previous disadvantage, structural risk factors or other things like that. Being really proactive within the curriculum, which is the reason that students come to university - because they can see a purpose in learning, can see a future and perhaps a family-changing, community-changing future by attending and engaging in university. We have seen a big increase in the number of people engaging in university, so we need to think about the full breadth of supporting academic staff in doing those proactive, good teaching, student engagement activities does help students have a sense of purpose, and a reason to be here."
There will certainly be some challenges, as Prof Anne Duffy identified: "Just like in many institutions, we found we didn't have good quality data. We didn't really know how to measure what the student need was, and how we were doing. And whether what we were doing was making a real difference. I think that's true across most universities - it's an opportunity. And so now with the pandemic, it's actually even focussed our attention even further."
Supporting student wellbeing is a common problem across multiple jurisdictions. There aren't simple remedies, but by working in partnership with students, by getting rid of silos and collecting evidence, we can start to improve practice, we can share practice, so that we can develop this broader community of practice so that student and staff can work together towards the common goal of wellbeing.
To see past sessions and register for upcoming sessions, please visit our Symposium series webpage.