Matt Adie, re-elected VP Education, sat down with Brig to discuss the education structures that can be set in place for students with mental health issues, how this has changed in his previous year as a Sabbatical, and what he hopes to see this year.
Q: How do you feel the university deals with mental health?
I suppose this is a comment more generally: We do OK but we could be doing a whole lot better. I think that is just in the whole higher education sector, we don’t understand the impact mental health can have on students during their time at university. It could always be better.
Q: And has that changed a lot since you became VP Education last year?
I wouldn’t say hugely, but I would say something that has changed at student support is inclusion, especially on the academic side of things; we can ensure we are adopting an inclusive approach and we are not seeing people who have individual needs and issues as being different to the student population, because there is no general student population.
Q: The ARUAs (Agreed Record of University Adjustments) are under review – can they be made to be more responsive to this need from students?
I hope so, and I think they will be. It is looking at the wide range of differences and issues students experience at university, and one of those will be mental health. However, we often throw everything under the umbrella of mental health and assume one means of support will benefit everybody, but under mental health there are a lot of different conditions there.
I think the ARUA review will contribute to that, but it is part of a wider push around mental health.
Q: What would you like to see come out of it in terms of mental health? Should it be individual structures or an overall approach?
I think it needs to be an overall approach by everyone. And that is not just academics or the Union, or the university. We need to take a holistic approach to mental health, and tackling the pressures that students come under, especially at [exam period].
We see huge numbers of students coming to us looking for support with exams. For some it is the last exams the will sit before they graduate, and will affect their classification.
I think tying up what we do at the Students’ Union and the university with Accommodation Services, with Estates and Campuses – that should be the next push to adopting an overall approach.
Q: How do you feel staff handle the issue of mental health?
My question there is: Every lecturer is an individual, and have they been provided with adequate support to be able to understand and tackle these issues in their classrooms? We have been looking in university-level committees at the support networks we have for staff as those front line responders – if there is a student with mental health difficulties in your classroom, how do you deal with that? Do you feel comfortable and competent doing it?
I do not think it is necessarily the lecturers fault if they are not up to scratch, but it is ensuring we work with them and the university to make sure they are as good as they can be as those first responders.
Q: The Union offers mental health first aid, is this something which could be rolled out to staff?
I think that would be really beneficial. I went through it last summer and – as someone who, I felt, had a reasonable knowledge of mental health – it really opened my eyes to the full range of issues which come under that term. Also, as a Sabbatical, who has to deal with students who often come to me with mental health issues, it equipped me to know how to handle the situation and properly signpost them to services.
I would like to see it rolled out, but we do have limited resources. If it could be rolled out, that would be fantastic.
Q: How do we make the support networks for students up to standard? What would you like to see done this year?
There have been really good things done this year, especially the Mental Health and Wellbeing Society, who have really raised the profile of the issue, because there remains a stigma attached to conditions.
If we can work around opening the dialogue with students then it is easier to get a student to talk openly about mental health, and effectively signpost them to the relevant services.
Q: How do you think we can expand, beyond this month, the profile of mental health?
That is always an issue, because even with the best initiatives there needs to be a legacy to them, and they become mainstream. When it comes to June 1 we cannot just drop it.
If this campaign can contribute to tackling the stigma and opening dialogue, maybe then we can sit with students and ask what support is needed and ensuring students can access it.
Q: Finally, what are your priorities for next year?
I am going to be looking at doing an efficiency review of the timetable. As I have explored it further, it could be of huge benefit to the whole university, because we see our facilities with massive burdens: the library, the car parking. If we can be clever in how we construct a timetable we could relieve the pressure on facilities.
It also means we can start to look at the timetabling pressures on students, and create a joined-up approach to the semester structure as to when assignments peak and exams peak. Then we can ensure students do not suffer due to excessive pressures that could be avoided.