Mental health in education – specialist and complex  infrastructure required!

I have been reading an excellent report produced by law firm Pincent Mason on “Mental health in Education” (– I have put a link at the bottom of this post).

The Pincent Mason report rightly picks up on the stance adopted by universities minster Sam Gyimah; who advised all university  vice chancellors that the government regards the prioritisation of student wellbeing and mental health as “non-negotiable” .  Yet, as I discussed an earlier blog post, it is clear that some universities and colleges are yet to accept that they must show leadership on this topic –  and indeed many still regard “coping with the move to college” as some kind of character test!   See here

However, the thrust of the paper from Pincent Mason is that the requirement for higher educational establishments to discharge their “duty of care” to students is both specialist and complex.

It means that they must look at their obligations to provide pastoral support and care for all students together with the provision of wellbeing and educational support for students diagnosed with, or declaring,  a  mental health problem .

So universities will need to implement staff training (for teaching and support staff… including staff at libraries or halls etc) so that they are aware of the signs of mental disorders and are able to formally escalate cases to the appropriate services.  The irony here is that it appears that the more training that is delivered then the higher the” reasonable expectation”  of staff performance… and hence the greater possibility of negligence.  The solution to this is to ensure that there are regular compliance audits so that the universities can show a record ensuring reasonable compliance.  Staff unable to conform to the standards cannot be allowed to deal with students… no exceptions.

Further, antidiscrimination laws mean that it is essential that learning support is given to students with mental health problems.

I think that it is also worth mentioning that the ways in which course assignments are set for students may be causal in the onset of, or the resurfacing of, some mental health conditions in some cases –  and therefore institutions may have to look  at alternative course practises to avoid stresses from workload – e.g. perhaps breaking down larger assignment in to smaller discrete pieces of work that can be accomplished over time rather than setting one large assignment.  I expect it is only a matter of time before we will see a student who is unable to continue at college suggesting that the mental health problems they suffered were caused or worsened by the behaviours and practices of a university or its staff?

The report shows that there is a complex list of laws applicable to this area – but they do serve as a useful checklist for the issues to be considered – the duty of care, the contract with students, the confidentiality ( – there is talk of agreements to notify parents  of problems), equality issues, human rights, health and safety, data protection and even the coroner’s act so that university understand the requirement to provide information and testimony in suicide cases.

My own feeling is that each institution requires “specialist unit” to deal with the infrastructure standards  and the processes required to meet this function:

  1. To set in place standards and procedures to ensure compliance with the best practices and statutory requirements – e.g. reporting, escalation, assessment and ongoing case reviews
  2. Provision support services for mental health issues and  referral to local services where appropriate
  3. Provision of learning support for those declaring or being diagnosed with mental health conditions
  4. Steps to ensure the any such students involved in disciplinary processing are not discriminated against
  5. Staff training to introduce procedures for recording and escalating signs, concerns, behaviours or discussions with students to the university services for ongoing assessment and management
  6. Teaching staff training to look at how teaching practices may be adjusted to minimise stress or the developments of mental health conditions
  7. To oversee intervention and support services;
  8. Internal audit  to monitor to ensure compliance by staff and departments to ensure standards are met and processes are followed
  9. Participation in national initiatives such as the scrutiny from the government and regulator (The Office for Students). The forthcoming development of the new University Mental Health Charter, backed by universities minister Sam Gyimah, is a project that institutions must engage with.
  10. Governance with relevant external expertise to monitor the performance of these services.

Wow – it’s a large piece of work. If this going to be effective then the “compliance piece” (8 above)   and the “governance piece” (10 above) are essential.

With such a need for a specialist team it is not surprising that some universities are grouping together to provide for such a function:

Greater Manchester will be the first place in the country to establish a dedicated centre to help support higher education students with mental health needs thanks to a new partnership between the region’s four universities and the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership, the body that oversees the area’s £6bn devolved health and social care budget.

The Manchester initiative represents a good start in proving assessments and wellbeing support (item 2 above) – yet it needs to go much much further.   I would like to see it becoming responsible for establishing  procedures  and  standards  for all university departments and staff within the group; proving awareness and training services…  and, most importantly, monitoring compliance and performance across the participating universities.

There is so much to do…. because it has not been tackled before!

You can download or read a summary of the excellent report produced by law firm Pincent Mason on “Mental health in Education” here.