Students’ mental health and wellbeing; developing a strategic approach for disabled learners
To provide you with the context that underpins this blog: I recently attended the launch of the Transforming Access and Student Outcomes (TASO) Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Evidence Hub. I also joined in a series of consultations focused on the changing support needs of 11 to 18-year-olds, using information about individual students as data, and the changing needs of younger students and sensitivity of information sharing processes.
In addition, the recommendations of the Disabled Students Commitment group had been given; with an increase in focus in addressing transition into higher education (HE) for disabled learners and student support, once on course. What this indicates, is how important interventions and support is that higher education providers and Go Higher West Yorkshire (GHWY) offer, but also how we require evaluation to evidence the outcomes achieved and to share that information across the sector.
Student mental health and disability
At the launch of the Student Mental Health Evidence Hub on 19 October 2023, a key finding of the evidence review is that 1 in 6 students are reporting mental health difficulties when they enter HE:
“Students need to feel that they belong, that they are safe and feel connected. They want to feel heard and have their opinions valued” (Kozman 2023).
There is a pressing need, in response to the increased demand on higher education providers, to create a joined-up whole university approach. There are many examples of good practice, however, there are gaps in the evidence of what works.
Mental health is classified as a disability and therefore is part of the Equality Act 2010. The Gov.uk website provides its definition of when a mental health condition is considered a disability: ‘If it has a long-term effect on normal day to day activity’. A condition is considered ‘long term’ is if it lasts, or is likely to last, 12 months or more. ‘Normal day to day activity’ is defined as something done regularly in a normal day: This includes using a computer, working set times or interacting with people. (GOV.UK 2023).
The independent group for access research and evaluation, TASO has worked in partnership with a consortium of HE partners: ‘AMOSSHE’, ‘Student Minds’, ‘SmaRteN’, ‘What Works, Wellbeing’ and King’s College London. They have created a resource to share best practice and to build evidence through evaluation of interventions, in this case on access and participation for students declaring mental health. The Hub provides a series of resources; a toolkit, evaluation guidance, examples of good practice and students’ perspectives for HE providers to draw upon, to promote the creation of a cohesive framework of support for students’ mental health and wellbeing.
Director of the Office for Students, John Blake, speaking at the launch, called for HE providers’ participation; linking the resource to the Equality of Opportunity Risk Register (EORR), an institutional assessment that is required for the new Access and Participation plans for higher education providers. He reiterated again the lack of evidence, through evaluation and the importance to incorporate students’ voices as co-producers in developing support frameworks.
Student Minds are promoting the University Mental Health Charter: calling to create environments in HE providers that promote students and staff well-being, stating:
“We want all universities to adopt a whole -university approach to mental health, and become places that promote the mental health and wellbeing of all members of the university community” (Student Minds, 2019).
The principles of good practice, published in the charter, provides a list of the enabling themes as:
- Leadership, strategy and policy
- Student voice and participation
- Cohesiveness of support across the provider
- Inclusivity and intersectional mental health
- Research innovation and dissemination
Professor Edward Peck, Vice Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University and HE Student Support Champion (an appointment by the Department for Education), advocated providers to understand how to respond to the volume of the numbers of students declaring mental health, as well as surmount the complexity and challenges that this presents. Peck made a case for consideration of how HE providers work in relationship with the National Health Service, how to support students’ transition from school into higher education. He also highlighted how students entering HE experience a dislocation; from their personal and professional support that had been established whilst in compulsory education to their move into HE. How support interventions need to cultivate students’ resilience and how, when there are concerns about a student; information is shared. He gave an example on creating ‘compassionate communications, policies and procedures’ in support of students.
Go Higher West Yorkshire
GHWY is actively addressing this challenge: In 2022, Advance HE was commissioned to conduct a review into ‘Disabled learners’ HE transitions and student experiences’ (Rowan 2022).
A strategic approach on disabled learners, as one of the underrepresented groups in higher education is a focus by GHWY including the Uni Connect project. GHWY is approaching how to ensure that the information, support and guidance on the support that HE providers give, and how to navigate the processes of applying to HE reaches those disabled learners that require it. The information needs to be in a timely fashion in an individual’s education journey, it also has to be bespoke and personalised and according to individuals’ circumstances.
This has led to the publication and dissemination of the first edition of the Disabled Learners Higher Education Transition Pack in 2022, to support learner’s transition into Higher Education. The transition pack addresses differences in terms used at the different stages of education, myth-busting and practical guidance for the transition from Education Health Care (EHCP) plan to applying for Disabled Students Allowance. An updated version is in production for 2023.
The pack is being circulated to learners, parents/carers/guardians and special educational needs co-ordinators in schools and colleges and awareness is being raised by attending the region’s SEND careers events. It is available as hardcopy, as a QR code and downloadable from the GHWY website. We are hearing that the pack is being disseminated as a resource by post-16 support teams and it has been adopted as a resource by other Uni Connects. Please share it with your colleagues widely.
Dr Martell Baines, Progression Manager, Leeds Arts University
Advance HE (2022) GHWY ‘Disabled Learners HE transitions and student experience’ Available at: https://gohigherwestyorks.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/Go-Higher-Yorkshire-Disabled-learners-HE-transitions-and-student-experiences-311022-Final.pdf
Go Higher West Yorkshire (2022) ‘Disabled Learners Transition Pack’ https://gohigherwestyorks.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/GHWYs-Disabled-Learners-Transition-Pack-Standard-Version-1.pdf
GOV.UK (2023) ‘When mental health becomes a disability’ Available at: https://www.gov.uk/when-mental-health-condition-becomes-disability
Office for Students (2023) ‘Equality of Opportunity Risk Register’ (EORR): Available at: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/promoting-equal-opportunities/equality-of-opportunity-risk-register/about-the-equality-of-opportunity-risk-register/
TASO (2023) ‘Mental Health and Wellbeing Hub’ Available at: https://taso.org.uk/student-mental-health-hub/
Student Minds (2019). ‘University Mental Health Charter’: Available at: https://hub.studentminds.org.uk/university-mental-health-charter/