Mental wellbeing in universities

"Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community." - the World Health Organisation (WHO)

Mental health is now high on the global agenda. Research shows that physical health and susceptibility to disease is exacerbated by a poor state of mental health.

In my role at the ACU I have been trained as a Mental Health First Aider. The Mental Health First Aid programme began in Australia in 2000. The aim of the programme is to extend the concept of first aid training to mental health issues, so that better initial support can be provided to those developing mental health issues or those in mental crisis.1

In some quarters mental illness is still taboo and there is a lot of stigma around this. Some people fail to accept their condition, they continue to suffer and their physical health deteriorates. Others who have realised they have a problem are worried about how they will be perceived at school, university or work, so do not seek the help they need.

Mental health in universities

Mental health problems can affect everyone at any point in their life, but often a significant change in an individual's circumstances can create more of an impact. For some students, the transition from school to university, leaving home for the very first time and having to be responsible for oneself can be challenging, especially if there were already underlying mental health issues. As most mental health problems develop by the age of 242, university students are at a particularly high risk.

In 2000, Universities UK (UUK) published its first publication on mental health support for students in higher education institutions. The document offered guidance for student services to plan, develop policies and put systems in place as part of a 'duty of care' to students, especially those experiencing mental health difficulties.

The UK's Equality Act legislation, passed in 2010, placed a responsibility on universities to ensure a duty of care to students in respect of their wellbeing.

Since UUK's first publication, the world has changed considerably – the demographic of the student population, higher tuition fees, and the increased use of the internet, social media and digital technologies – contributing to a completely different landscape in terms of student mental health.

Recent statistics reveal a declining state of student mental health. In 2015/16, over 15,000 first-year students in UK universities reported that they had a mental health problem, compared to approximately 3,000 in 2006.

Poor mental health has been associated with poorer academic outcomes, as students tend to be less able to effectively manage stress and pressure, impacting their ability to perform productively.3

These figures relate to the UK, however the Times Higher Education reported that universities around the world are beginning to understand the problem and that early intervention is the best tool in tackling mental health conditions in students.

What is being done now and what are the hopes for the future?

According to Yann W Tanoe, a French-Ivorian educator and social entrepreneur, an advocate of mental health and wellbeing in the African diaspora, mental health is still being discovered in many societies around the world, it is therefore not always approached nor recognised as it should be, especially in African society.

Examples of good practice

In the UK, university student services provide access for students to speak to welfare officers. Two of our member universities, the University of Birmingham and the University of Plymouth are working hard to support both students and staff.

At the University of Birmingham, there is a strong focus on Mental Health. They have trained a number of mental health first aiders and set up a Wellbeing taskforce, chaired jointly between an academic lead and a professional services lead.

The University of Plymouth has a valuable initiative called the 'Listening Post', a drop-in service for students, staffed by trained volunteers.

Support provided by ACU scholarship programmes

The ACU administers three flagship scholarship programmes: Chevening Scholarships, Marshall Scholarships and Commonwealth Scholarships. Scholars' wellbeing is key to their academic success. Each scholarship team has staff dedicated to student welfare and support.

Prior to arrival in the UK, scholars complete a medical questionnaire to establish whether there are any pre-existing health conditions so that they can be guided towards adequate support on arrival. They also have regular check-ins during their time in the UK and have access to signposted advice and guidance from the team. This is very valuable and helpful for scholars who are experiencing life in the UK for the first time.


As HR professionals we have a duty of care to support our staff. HR professionals in universities are encouraged to support colleagues who have regular contact with students and are usually the first to notice any changes in student behaviour. We hope that student mental health and wellbeing becomes a priority to ensure that students can fulfil their potential.

Willorna Brock is the ACU’s HR Business Partner. Willorna contributes to HR strategy, working with the Head of HR to transform HR service delivery, devising and implementing key initiatives to support the ACU’s strategy to create and sustain a high-performance culture.

With a background in teaching, Willorna has worked in a variety of HR roles within the public, private and not-for profit sectors, including London Borough of Sutton, Atkins, EY, CGI and Save the Children. Willorna holds a Master’s in Human Resource Management from the University of Surrey and is a Chartered Member of the CIPD.

(1) Adult MHFA Manual MHFA England 2016

(2) Kessler, R., Berglund, P., Demler, O., Jin, R., Merikangas, K. and Walters, E. (2005). Lifetime Prevalence and Age-of-Onset Distributions of DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62(6), p.593. 

(3) Poh Keong, P., Chee Sern, L., Ming, F. and Che, I. (2015) ‘The relationship between mental health and academic achievement among university students–A literature review’, in Second International Conference on Global Trends in Academic Research, Bandung, Global Illuminators.

Last modified on 13/05/2019
Tags: support, Human Resources, university, higher education