“On the radar”: proactively supporting university students’ mental wellbeing

Year: 2021

Author: Crawford, Nicole

Type of paper: Individual Paper

The mental wellbeing of university students has been largely overlooked across the higher education sector until recent years. Now, universities are realising that mental wellbeing is central to students’ success at university and the sector is responding by putting student mental wellbeing “on the radar”. In this climate, a National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education study investigated university students’ perspectives on mental wellbeing and their insights into proactive approaches that they found supportive during their university studies. In particular, the research focused on mature-aged students in, and from, regional and remote areas in Australia. The study investigated two research questions: i) “What factors impact on the mental wellbeing of mature-aged undergraduate university students in, and from, regional and remote Australia?”; and ii) “What are proactive approaches that support the mental wellbeing of mature-aged undergraduate university students in, and from, regional and remote Australia?” The study followed a mixed-methods design informed by multiple conceptualisations of mental wellbeing. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory was employed to demonstrate that students are located within multiple interacting microsystems (e.g. university, family, work and local community) that impact positively and negatively on their mental wellbeing, and which are influenced by other layers of the broader ecosystem. Data collection included three methods: i) National higher education student data; ii) Student survey; and iii) Student interviews. A major finding of this research is the important role of teaching and learning in impacting student mental wellbeing; the everyday interactions that students have with teaching and support staff, their peers, the subject content and curriculum, and the physical or online “classroom” impact their mental wellbeing. University students’ mental wellbeing is part of a complex web of interacting layers — some proximal to the student, others at a distance. It is evident that mental wellbeing is far more than an individual student’s “problem” or the sole responsibility of Student Support Services; it is vital that mental wellbeing be supported at all layers of the university ecosystem. The findings from this study point to the need for continued conversations with students, and ongoing thinking, research and development of approaches to supporting students’ mental wellbeing. In problematising and reconfiguring pre-COVID-19 teaching and learning approaches and delivery for post-COVID-19 times, it is opportune to foreground mental wellbeing and equity in these conversations; future changes in this reconfiguring should be viewed through mental health and wellbeing, and equity lenses.