Iliyan Stefanov: Increase in student mental health issues means support must be efficient

Dr Iliyan Stefanov, Head of Student Services, Queen Margaret University
Dr Iliyan Stefanov, Head of Student Services, Queen Margaret University
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Since the turn of the century, there has been a marked increase in the share of ­students struggling with mental health issues in universities across the country and although strides have been made in developing effective approaches to support students’ wellbeing, we know we have to do better.

The real challenge is not that it is ­difficult to come up with a solution to the problem. However, the increase in mental health issues among students far outstrips the growth in resources we have to tackle it. In other words, increasing efficiency – doing things right – is not enough. We ought to aim at increasing effectiveness – that is to do the right things.

In short, we need to shift from being reactive to be more proactive, and find ways to work better together and aim higher than just supporting the young people to successfully graduate. Additional resources may be needed and will be indeed welcome. However much could be achieved simply by redesigning the way we use existing resources.

At Queen Margaret University we have laid the grounds for such a ­support model and can see the positive results of it already.

Our model is simple. It consists of adopting a mental health and wellbeing policy, transforming our services to becoming largely proactive, creating an enhanced safety network and investing in wellbeing.

We built our mental health and wellbeing policy by working together with our students’ union. We developed it on the key principles of ­promotion, prevention and support but with the understanding that ­students are responsible for their own mental wellbeing and that we all have a duty to help and support them to achieve that.

Based on the policy, QMU invested in additional resources, introducing a new Wellbeing Service and expanding the existing Residence-Life team that supports students living in ­university accommodation. We were aware that simply having more services and increasing the size of the existing ones was not enough though. We had to find a way to increase ­co-operation between services and truly put the student at the centre of our support system. This led us to develop and implement a new ­system of how all support services relate to one another, which we call Stay-on-Course. The system is designed to allow us to identify students in need of support early by tracking their ­academic attendance and to proactively offer support. It also brings all services that are needed around the student, so they feel looked after rather than needing to self-refer and wait for appointments.

Crucial to how effective we could be was to make the access to our services easy and straightforward. To achieve that, we introduced a general drop-in system that is available during working hours Monday to Friday, so students can be seen for a quick assessment irrespective of what the issue is and when it presents itself. We promoted the new system to both students and staff and also simplified our Helping Students in Distress Guide for staff

We have also made an investment in training staff in mental health first aid and so far more than 25 per cent of all QMU staff have received training. Generously supported by the Big Lottery Fund’s Young Start programme, the training programme also provides students with the tools to understand how to help someone experiencing mental health problems.

We have also collaborated with local organisations to deliver better services to our students. We work extensively with a local mental health support charity called CHANGES, with our local Riverside Medical Practice in Musselburgh and are an active member of the East Lothian Council’s suicide prevention steering group.

We are not there yet. As confidence, resilience and self-awareness are among the top employability skills, we should be able to tune our ­support services in order to help our students build up these important life skills. This would not just help them with life in the university but, more importantly, with life after graduation.

We also want to increase our ­preventative work, so that young people learn and develop positive skills in preventing mental health issues becoming real problems. To achieve that, we are piloting the NHS approved stress control course during January. University communities have a role to support students as they make their journey to becoming happy adults ready to contribute to society.

Prevention is always better than cure.

Dr Iliyan Stefanov, head of 
student services, Queen Margaret University