The UEA branch of the University and College Union (UCU) said academics are under ‘increased pressure’ to support students’ mental health despite not being ‘qualified therapist[s] or mental health professional[s].’
The branch also expressed ‘great concerns’ towards the ability of Student Support Services (SSS) to meet the ‘growing need’ of students, stating the ‘pressures on staff have reached intolerable levels.’
Their statement followed the news of the fourth student death on UEA’s campus in ten months.
After the death of LDC first year Theo Brennan-Hulme, more than 3,000 students signed a petition in less than 24 hours demanding the university take action to deal with the growing ‘mental health crisis’ on UEA’s campus. At the time of writing, the petition has over 8700 signatures.
The university increased investment in SSS by £250,000, expanding the budget for 2018/19 to £700,000, marking a 90.22 percent rise from 2016.
President of UEA’s UCU branch, Ben Jones, a senior lecturer in development studies in the school of international development (DEV) and Vice-President, Mark Hobbs, lecturer in humanities in the interdisciplinary institute for the humanities (IIH), said members share concerns about their ability as academics to support students’ mental health.
‘Many academics have undertaken training in mental health awareness and we as a branch are supportive of this training. However, we recognise that there is a difference between being aware of mental health conditions and being able to provide effective support or counselling and this is often what students want and need.’
The UCU suggest the SSS should not have to adapt to the funding model it is given, but should adapt to student need and then be funded accordingly. ‘This is not a finger pointing exercise’, they said.
‘What academic staff want to see is a fully funded and effective SSS so that when they refer their students to these services they know that they will receive effective services and be seen quickly and not have to wait weeks or months for appointments.’
They added, ‘academic staff have reported to us that they do not feel current support for staff is good and in some cases there is no provision offered to staff or it is not clear what provision is available.’
A UEA spokesperson said: ‘Support for all university staff is central to UEA developing a whole-community approach to wellbeing and mental health. The additional investment will allow for better training for academics and student-facing staff to pick up signs of potential mental health problems. That’s not about asking staff to deal with those problems but to be able to identify them better and refer them on to the appropriate service.
‘The Vice-Chancellor’s taskforce will also be gathering the views and expertise of a wide range of staff and students from within the University, including unions, as well as from outside the University. UEA is already focused on supporting the health and wellbeing of all staff and all students but there is more to be done and we will need to work together to achieve that.’
The taskforce will look at eight key areas: leadership, transition, prevention, early intervention, support, staff, partnerships and learning from data and research.
A ‘town hall’ event open to both staff and students, will be held in the Julian Study Centre in a series of events which aim to continue to develop a community wide discussion on mental health.
Vice-Chancellor Professor David Richardson said: ‘At UEA we have recognised the significant increase in demand in wellbeing and mental health services and have been planning for additional investment. What we can do, what we must do, what we are focused on doing is responding to give the students and staff in our community the support and assistance they need on a whole-institution basis.’
The Vice-Chancellor said the £250,000 increase in student support funding will be used to recruit specially trained wellbeing staff such as a cognitive behavioural therapist and a senior wellbeing advisor with links to local NHS services.
In addition to these services the number of advisors available will be increased and include a mental health advisor, disability advisor and two student life advisors.
The Vice-Chancellor added: ‘Training for academic and support staff will also receive additional funding, with three extra staff trainers being recruited to offer mental health first aid training and suicide prevention awareness.’
UEAUCU is compiling a survey of members who have experienced supporting students with mental health and will share the report with the university’s Executive Team to improve staff and student wellbeing.
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