One of the critical issues in higher education is student mental health. Coming to University for some, can be a catalyst for those who experience difficulties with their mental health, particularly for those with pre-existing conditions. Transitions into new living arrangements, stress of assignments and with the increased cost of living it is evident that students face a multitude of challenges while studying. Research tends to focus on the ‘on campus’ students. We are aware that online learners face many similar challenges when compared to campus students, more distant learners disclosed mental health conditions on application (7.8%) compared to the higher education average of 2.02% (Lister et al, 2021).
With a shift in delivery of teaching in higher education to a ‘hybrid model’ and with a larger audience involved in online learning, it is likely the use of multiple delivery modes will remain and become an embedded feature in higher education. With more students disclosing mental health difficulties in distance learning settings, and with a change in the wider learning ecosystem, the need to consider barriers and enablers to student mental health in distant learners requires closer inspection.
Positive Digital Practices
Many UMHAN members may now be familiar with the work UMHAN are supporting on the ‘Positive Digital Practices’ project following on from Kate Lister's attendance to UMHAN’s meetings.
Lister and colleagues produced a paper: Mental health in distance learning: a taxonomy of barriers and enablers to student mental wellbeing - Open Research Online.
The paper highlighted the barriers that contribute to poor mental health while studying and the enablers; those things that enable students to study and perform to the best of their ability, regardless of mental health presentation. University wellbeing teams often work using an individualistic approach to managing mental health, the PDP project works on designing all aspects of education delivery with inclusivity in mind, creating a holistic approach to mental health. Working ‘upstream’ on a sustainable project can help those of us ‘downstream’ who are pulling students out of the overflowing river.
The PDP project has a number of branches under development:
- The Open University leads on positive learner identities, focusing on emotional awareness, encouraging help seeking behaviour, recognising achievements and valuing learning opportunities.
- The University of Bradford leads on positive digital communities, supporting students’ sense of belonging and purpose, informal peer support and meaningful connections that do not rely on a campus environment.
- The University of Warwick leads on positive pedagogies, establishing inclusive,
compassionate practices in technology-enhanced learning that support mental wellbeing.
- Jisc leads on sector-wide engagement, drawing on their established cross-disciplinary
networks in technology-enhanced learning.
- Student Minds leads on student engagement in the project, facilitating a student panel
to steer and guide the project.
- The University Mental Health Advisers Network (UMHAN) leads on the engagement of
mental health professionals, bringing expertise from 400 mental health advisors and
mentors from 130 institutions
How are UMHAN involved?
As the designated project officer to support the project, I have been involved in some of the work streams that are developing materials to embed into the curriculum on emotional resilience. After some online media training (and direction that I need to wear more colour when online!) with Dr Janet Summer, an emotional resilience toolkit was developed for staff and students in higher education (Emotional resilience - Positive Digital Practices). The guide supports staff on how educators can best support students to engage with content that can be emotionally challenging to study.
Another work stream has been resources supporting distance learners who may be having
relationship difficulties, supporting them to consider when the best time is to access support. Students had identified this as an area of pressure placed on them while they study.
Resources are available on the Positive Digital Practices' website for universities to use and embed into online teaching and online resources.
Watch this space!
With so many competent and experienced mental health professionals in UMHAN we will continue seeking UMHAN members' feedback on use of resources, so watch this space for more to come.