A wide variety of people internal and external to the educational institutions have a role to play in supporting students with mental health problems. These include:
- The student himself/herself
- The student's family
- Other students within the institution
- Staff members within the institution
- The educational institution as a whole
- Health Services, Social Services and voluntary sector agencies.
Research shows that when contemplating approaching someone in a position of authority, students are much more likely to approach their tutor about emotional or life problems than they are a counsellor or GP. Additionally, it is not just tutors who provide support, students who experience emotional or mental health problems may approach a range of staff who work in educational institutions. OSMHN's own research has found that lecturers, administrative, residential and domestic staff may all have a concern about the mental health of students.
Staff often have two main concerns:
- How can you tell if the student has a mental health problem?
- What should you do about it?
How can you tell if the student has a mental health problem?
Students may come to university or college with an existing mental health problem which they may or may not have revealed to anyone. This is quite understandable. Many people are reluctant to mention their mental health problems on an application form, and few students make any such declaration. Staff may encounter any of the following situations:
- Some students will be up-front about their mental health situation and make staff aware of their needs from the outset, for example by contacting a Disability Adviser.
- Some students may have their problems well under control and feel that there is no need to mention them unless they are likely to have an impact on their academic performance.
- A significant number of students will encounter their first mental health problem during their studies.
- Other students will have a mental health problem which is impacting negatively on their studies or other aspects of their life but do not declare it or access support.
This latter group cause staff in educational institutions much concern. As a result, staff and the institution as a whole have a role to play in identifying students in difficulty and ensuring their needs are met.
What is a mental health problem?
Distinguishing between minor setbacks and more serious problems is not always easy for staff to do. OSMHN's own research has highlighted that staff sometimes have difficulty determining when a student's mental health problem is serious enough to require medical intervention. At the other extreme staff are worried that students are sometimes using a minor mental health problem as an excuse to obtain allowances on their academic work.
A member of staff's ability to appraise the situation may depend on a number of factors such as:
- the nature of their contact with the student
- how well they know the student
- how much knowledge and experience they have of welfare and health issues.
What to look for?
In many cases a distressed student may approach you directly, either to discuss their problems, or because they are concerned about their ability to work. In some cases the student won't have raised any issues with you but perhaps you, other students or staff are concerned. You may notice some of the following indicators that all is not well:
- changes in the way that the person looks or behaves
- continuing difficulties with academic work
- withdrawal from activities
- mood changes
- weight loss
- bizarre or challenging patterns of behaviour
- reliance on alcohol or illicit drugs
What should you do about it?
Feedback from OSMHN's research and staff workshops have indicated that many staff members are unsure about how to respond to students with mental health difficulties.
If you are aware, or suspect, that a student is having problems with their mental health, there are a number of things that you can do. In becoming involved, it is important that you respect the student's need for confidentiality and that you know the appropriate limits to your involvement.
If your role involves contact with the student you may be able to raise your concerns with them while they are on their own. Whilst you must respect the student's need for confidentiality, there will be some situations in which you cannot keep things to yourself.
If there is a possibility that the student is likely to cause harm to themselves or others then you have a responsibility to pass that information on to someone else such as your manager, a General Practitioner or other responsible party. Your institution should have policies and guidelines which will help clarify the situation for you.
Other practitioners will have their own confidentiality codes, especially Health Service staff, counsellors and advice workers. Unless the student consents to the sharing of information, they won't be able to pass personal information back to you, but they may be able to give general advice on the situation and what you can do.
If you feel there is any threat to your safety you should not try to raise your concerns with a student in an isolated location.
You need to consider what is reasonable for you to offer to the student in terms of:
- Your job role
- Take into account your responsibilities within your job role and consider your workload. Some staff can find themselves becoming inappropriately over-involved with the needs of individual students.
- Your knowledge and skills
- Stick to what you do well and don't try to be an amateur psychotherapist. If you feel that your skills and knowledge are limited you could consider attending a training course. See the section on staff mental health resources for more information.
- Your personal limits
- Before questioning a student, consider how well you are able deal with other people's distress, do not upset the student if you cannot deal with the consequences.
The best help you can offer is to:
- Be clear about what you can and cannot offer
- It is not your responsibility to 'fix' a student's mental health problem and you should not be afraid to communicate your limitations to the student both in terms of the level of support you can provide and the amount of time you have available.
- What can seem like minimal support to a staff member may be very beneficial to an individual student.
- Take action to reduce the student's stress
- Consider what allowances you can make for students with mental health difficulties within your role. For example, as a lecturer is it possible to negotiate study times, extend deadlines, change assessment arrangements and teaching styles? Much can be learnt from good practice techniques within other institutions.
- Help the student find other sources of support
- Raise your own awareness of support services within your institution and locally and be prepared to refer students to health or counselling services for help with their emotional or mental health problems. Remember that sources of support can include self-help materials and web sites as well as specific individuals and services.
- Look after yourself
- Staff needs are often neglected. You can reduce your own stress by recognising and identifying your boundaries and limitations and also seeking support and advice from colleagues. Your institution has a duty to ensure that the needs of its staff are being met.
If you are still unsure about what to do, you can also seek advice from your institution's counselling service or disability advisers.
Your responsibilities will depend on your position and your organisation and you should make sure that these are clear.
We have provided a link to some guidelines and policies from other institutions (see HE/FE Staff Resources) but you should consult any policies and procedures developed by your own organisation.
See our Students' Rights page for details of disability legislation applicable to educational institutions.
Sources of support
Although OSMHN is not able to offer direct support to students who are experiencing emotional distress or mental health problems, we are concerned that staff and students are aware of the support that is available. The 'local support for students' page shows a range of sources of support available to students in Oxford. By clicking on the links you can find out more about each option. The options shown cover informal and more formal sources of support and are intended to cover a whole range of needs from mild emotional distress through to more serious mental or emotional distress. See our section on Referral if a student needs help with mental health problems which are having an immediate and serious impact on their well-being.
We have compiled a list of further resources relevant to HE/FE staff.