With the prevalence of mental health conditions increasing in the general population, increasing numbers of students with such conditions are entering higher education. Research by the Equality Challenge Unit (2014) suggests that 0.8% of students in UK higher education have disclosed a mental health condition to their university, and the Equality Challenge Unit has argued that this represents significant under-reporting, given estimates that 29% of students experience clinical levels of psychological distress.
University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) student data from 2013/14 indicated that there is a higher rate of declared mental health conditions (2.5%), but a significant percentage of students may not have disclosed their conditions.
UHI is a tertiary distributed university, based on a partnership of 13 independent colleges and research institutions, each with their own character and specialisms, and supported by a network of over 70 learning centres across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. In 2013/14, 25% of UHI students were resident outwith the UHI catchment area, based across Scotland, the rest of the UK and internationally, with 16% of the university’s students enrolled in programmes that are delivered entirely online.
Studying online is different from being in a face-to-face environment, and online teaching staff without visual or audio cues need to have additional skills to be aware of the needs of their students. Also, students can be more open and less inhibited in an online environment. The distributed nature of UHI adds to the complexity of supporting students with mental health conditions and also in dealing with certain behaviours, which can be very different online than in a face-to-face lecturing situation.
Professional experiences at UHI prompted the need to carry out research and identify support requirements for academic staff teaching online, to support students who have mental health conditions, whether these are disclosed or undisclosed at the time of application to the university.
This project, ‘Development of a digital toolkit to support staff to support students with mental health conditions’, aims to develop a digital toolkit for all staff across the university sector to support students who have mental health conditions.
This will enhance the experiences of students with mental health conditions as staff increase their knowledge and confidence. This may contribute to student retention and recruitment by enabling universities to show commitment to supporting students with mental health conditions face-to-face and online across the sector, including at UHI’s distributed tertiary institution. This will also contribute to the sector’s good practice and contribute to a university’s duty of care to students.
Two of the project team undertook a literature search in May 2015 on the topic of mental health support for students studying on online programmes, which contributed to a paper based on their professional experience. The paper was accepted for publication in the Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice in June 2015. The published paper planned a mixed-methods design for research, with three phases:
The digital toolkit for staff is planned for development in collaboration with UHI’s Educational Development Unit (EDU). EDU develops digital learning materials to meet the needs of modern learning by offering support and services that will help increase student satisfaction and student attainment within the university. EDU was established in 2011 and has created over 540 resources, and worked with over 400 members of staff, including Dr Rachel Erskine. All projects undertaken with EDU have a clear step-by-step process for maximum efficiency, and are compliant with current accessibility, operability and compatibility standards.
The project team plans for student voices to be part of the content for the digital toolkit, for example from the university’s Professional Development Award Mental Health Peer Support, as well as students’ peer review of the content for staff.
The completed digital toolkit, including university-specific and sector-wide resources, will be distributed through: