This critical appraisal synthesises a body of work that has created a new, evidence-informed, holistic model of mental health and wellbeing in UK universities, that is shaping understanding, policy and practice at a national and international level. Adopting a Pragmatic philosophical view and taking a Social Movement Activist Research approach, I have employed a range of mixed methodologies and techniques to generate new findings and narrative understanding to create positive change in applied settings.
Concern about student mental health and wellbeing is not a new phenomenon, however, in recent years there have been significant increases in demand for support and an apparent reduction in student wellbeing. Research evidence and sector discourse suggests that traditional responses have failed to meet the extent of current need and there has been both debate and confusion as to how universities should respond. More recent work has proposed the need for whole university responses that holistically address wellbeing but gaps in evidence and understanding mean that these calls have led to further uncertainty across the higher education sector.
The works contained in this critical appraisal has sought to address and resolve uncertainty. Taking a Pragmatic philosophical view, the work has focused upon two central questions:
1. How to establish what would be helpful for mental health and wellbeing in UK universities, ensuring that actions are well evidenced and more likely to increase wellbeing and avoid harm
2. How to ensure that universities are likely to engage in this body of work, so that research does not remain theoretical and separate from lived experience and practice
Taking a Social Movement Activist Research approach, the task undertaken was to understand the lived experiences of individuals and communities within universities, connecting to multiple voices and a broad range of evidence. Fundamentally, this research has created narratives that have provided:
1. An overarching global narrative in the form of a holistic model of mental health and wellbeing in universities, capable of grappling with the complexities and ‘thingyness’ (Murdoch, 1992) of the problem, within university settings and with potential solutions.
2. More detailed granular narratives, addressing specific aspects of university life, that could help fill in gaps of understanding, perception and knowledge and support positive action within universities.
3. An opportunity to make a useful contribution to improving student mental health and wellbeing.
A plethora of research and enquiry led to a series of granular narratives, addressing specific aspects of university life including the role of academics and personal tutors, the role of student services, the wellbeing of post-graduate research students, how co-creation can support the development of interventions and how position in the university community can impact on wellbeing and impact on cultural narratives.
Moreover, the creation of a holistic model of mental health and wellbeing in universities in the form of the University Mental Health Charter was developed through extensive mixed method research and has been accepted and adopted by the UK Higher Education sector as the nationally accepted framework for practice in this area. The work evidenced in this critical appraisal has increased understanding in relation to a range of aspects of student mental health, has been extensively cited in the literature and is now seen as the keystone in efforts to improve mental health and wellbeing in UK universities.