Student mental wellbeing: Developing policy, practice and considering future directions in HE

Jenny L Lawrence, on behalf of the UUK working group for the promotion of mental well-being in HE1, explores student mental wellbeing guidance


UniversitiLawrence_coveres across the 4 nations are duty bound (by the Equality and Diversity Act 2010, and the QAA) to ensure inclusive environments, this includes removing barriers to learning. It is time for institutions to think smarter about access and inclusivity. There is a moral imperative, but also a motivating business case. This issue of the University of York Forum magazine is especially prescient given the proposed changes to Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) for students with specific disabilities and pushing out of responsibility for disabled students’ access to learning to institutions. Although institutions will receive funds in replacement of DSA (though much reduced when compared to the millions currently spent on disabled student support and only available to spend on specific activities) they will be unable to replicate the current system of support in place today. Judges have agreed the pushing out of responsibilities to institutions can be challenged at the high court, but the change is imminent. BIS are listening to the sector and have recently (March 2015) announced they will continue to consult before finalising their plans stating that deferring planned changes from 2015 to 2016 ‘will help give institutions the time to review the services they offer to disabled students and make appropriate improvements to meet their needs’, but their goal is for key modifications to be phased in from 2016-17.

‘The key questions for all institutions are: how can they best break down the barriers to learning for their disabled students?  How can they support these students in realising their potential?

Embedding equality and diversity competence in everyday institutional activity offers [a] cost saving, efficient solution for HEIs: , this can range from enhancing learning teaching and assessment practice using accessible pedagogies to refining the management of administrative systems, and revising training for all (academic, support, administrative and auxiliary) staff. This approach has the added value of benefiting all students (not just those with disabilities) and all staff; in my experience, diversity competent members of staff who are aware of their role and responsibility with regard to disability, experience less stress, anxiety and expansion of workload when working with disabled students than less well-trained individuals.  In this short piece I look at how refinements to current systems can create successfully an inclusive environment with specific focus on mental well-being and mental health difficulties.

Mental well-being, for example

Mental wellbeing is of great importance to every student’s academic outcome and experience of university life. There are indications that the numbers of students suffering from mental health problems are increasing.  Therefore there has never been a better time to explore best practice when considering policies and procedures for student mental health and wellbeing.

The Mental Wellbeing in HE working group has produced for UUK ‘Good practice guidance for student mental wellbeing in higher education’2, originally published in 2000, now rewritten to take into consideration changes in law, policy and practice within today’s institutions and across the four nations. The guidelines are written by senior student support and academic staff with many years of experience dealing with students’ mental health and how mental ill health can impact their ability to study and function within a closely managed and rigidly structured environment such as a university. The guidelines offer a supportive road map for action based on best practice and legal requirements, taking a student centred approach throughout. This is a delicate balance that takes time, patience and advanced expertise. The working group has these qualities and has done this founding work for institutions to build on.

The guidelines will equip readers to review and refine current strategy or consider building new or reviewing current systems to support students in their institution with mental health difficulties. The overall aim of the guidance is to enhance the equality and diversity competencies of university systems, services and communities.

The guide includes chapters on: International and national policy; developments within HE since 2010; policy development; legal implications; support and guidance structures; raising awareness and training and an accessible mental health framework to guide and support the building of institutional practices..

The guidelines are of interest to anyone with strategic responsibility for student wellbeing and support, or working on developing policy and practice in support of students with mental health difficulties.



Dr Jenny L. Lawrence is a senior fellow of the HEA, where she works as a consultant in academic practice. She has worked in HE for almost 20 years as an academic, student support practitioner and manager. Her work is informed by a strong ethical imperative, which influences her research and career choices. She has worked with the widening participation agenda since the mid-nineties, her current pedagogic interests include accessible learning, teaching and assessment, critical and ethical pedagogies.

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