The primary objective of the current study was to explore the level of awareness, access and usefulness of university mental health and wellbeing services in postgraduate taught students at University of Aberdeen. Secondary aims were to investigate students’ attitudes around help-seeking behaviours and to formulate a deeper understanding on taught students’ needs.
The results indicated that most psychology taught students were aware of a variety of mental health services. Specifically, the highest frequencies of awareness were reported for AUSA, University Counselling Services, Multifaith Chaplaincy Center, Nightline and Personal Tutor. In contrast, only small proportion of students were informed about the Feeling Good App and Resilience Videos. These findings are consistent with previous studies which had focused in PGR student population (Prentice,2019).
With respect to the access in university mental health and wellbeing services, just under half of taught students (45,5%) had asked for support from university mental health resources, while 54,5% of the respondents had never accessed any type of available university services. Whether past researches demonstrated that postgraduate students had turned mostly to AUSA for psychological support (Prentice,2019), this study has shown that postgraduate students preferred to ask help from a Student Support Advisor or use some type of online resources. Considering that the current research took place during the Covid-19 pandemic, it is reasonable to assume that more students turned to online resources, because they were accessible from a distance.
Through the current study, researchers also tried to understand how helpful or not helpful postgraduate taught students have found the existing mental health and wellbeing services at University of Aberdeen. Only a small proportion of students evaluated their experience with the services. That seems reasonable given that over half of the total had not accessed the mental health resources. From the students who had used a type of services, most of them mentioned that the experience with online resources and Student Support Advisor was positive. AUSA has also been rated as a “helpful” service by an appreciable proportion of respondents. However, only one person admitted that they had used the service. This can either mean that some people omitted to give an answer about access or that the answer “helpful” indicates some students’ assumption and not a personal experience with the service.
On the other hand, Self-help book loans and Disability Advisors were rated by most participants as “not helpful” services. However, some participants replied to the question, “did you find the service unhelpful?”, without answering if they had used it. As it already mentioned earlier, there are two possible explanations for this paradox. One interpretation of this finding is that some students had misunderstood the question about usefulness expressing their arbitrary belief about a service they had never used before. An alternative explanation would be that some student chose not to reply the question about access to mental health services. The number of respondents who evaluated their experience was significantly small, thus the results do not represent the general population and are not generalisable.
In contradiction with earlier findings which demonstrated academic anxiety as the main area of mental struggle among postgraduate students (Prentice,2019), the present study shows that the majority of students reported common mental health issues, such as general anxiety and depression as their top areas of difficulty. The second most reported area of struggle was academic anxiety, while only few students reported interpersonal issues, loneliness or traumatic events as their first area of difficulty. The difference between the studies is likely to have occurred due to the different way of gathering the data. Specifically, in the current research, students were allowed to choose only one option from a multi-response item, while in Prentice work (2019) participants had the option to choose more than one area of mental struggle. Additionally, the studies focused on different postgraduate student populations, which may have affected the results.
Comparing to the global prevalence of mental health conditions (https://ourworldindata.org/mental-health), the present results demonstrate that the frequency of common mental issues in postgraduate taught students is significantly higher than in general population. Almost 60% of the respondents choose mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders, as their first area of psychological difficulty. High rates of mental health conditions were observed in many previous studies, with some of them focused in non-UK student population (Levecque, Anseel, De Beuckelaer, Van der Heydan, & Gisle, 2017; Stallman & Shochet,2009). However, the current study includes only a small size of taught students and do not meet the criteria for a prevalence study (Naing, Winn & Rusli BN, 2006). Thus, the results only indicate frequencies and percentages in a specific sample, and do not represent the general taught population.
Concerning attitudes around mental health, postgraduate taught students were asked to rate their confidence, knowledge and embarrassment about issues around mental health and help-seeking behaviours. From the results, it becomes clear that the majority of respondents felt very confident to manage their mental health issues or to support a friend facing mental health problems. Additionally, most participants believe they are well informed around mental health issues and find extremely important the ability to understand issues related to mental health. In terms of experiencing embarrassment about mental health issues, most frequent answers were “slightly embarrassed” and “reasonably embarrassed”. In contrast with the present study, previous findings in PGR student population (Prentice,2019) demonstrated that students mostly feel “quite embarrassed” about experiencing psychological difficulties, they have an average amount of knowledge around mental health and wellbeing and they show a moderate level of confidence in handling their areas of mental struggle. An explanation of the difference between these two studies is that the sample of the previous study consisted of students from ten different fields, while in the present study all participants were psychology students. Considering this fact, it reasonable for psychology students to report higher levels of confidence and knowledge around mental health and wellbeing issues than a sample of general taught population.
There are several limitations which should be taken into consideration when interpreting the findings of the present research. One main limitation that should be noted is the size of the sample. The number of participants was significantly small, and it does not represent the general postgraduate taught population. Additionally, participants were selected from a single department (School of Psychology), thus there was not variation in the sample. Another important limitation comes from the self-reporting questionnaire. The research is based on peoples’ perceptions on mental health, therefore there are increased chances of personal bias. Individuals opinion depends on and can be affected by a wide variety of biological, cultural and psychological factors. Although anonymity was guaranteed to protect participants and to minimise the chances of social desirability bias, the chances of bias are still high due to the lack of other data methods (Althubaiti, 2016). The initial plan was to collect qualitative and quantitative data and then compare the findings. However, due to the pandemic outbreak and time restrictions this plan was unfeasible. Another thing that someone have to consider when interpreting the results is that ordinal and nominal scales were used. That means that even though participants reported their opinion, they may have been limited by the possible available options (Bishop & Herron, 2015).Lastly, considering that there are no other researches about mental health awareness in postgraduate taught students , the present results are compared to findings in other student populations. For all the above reasons, the results should be read and interpreted with caution.
Future research directions
Αlthough the current research had explored the mental health awareness of psychology postgraduate taught students extensively, further studies are required to formulate a holistic view on taught students’ unmet needs. The present findings should encourage other researchers further investigate students’ perspectives on mental health and evaluate the already existing university resources. In terms of future directions, researchers could include larger samples with greater variability in them. Additionally, due to the time restrictions, researchers did not have the chance to gather and analyse qualitative data properly. Thus, it would be useful for future researchers to use a mixed-method design to gather greater depth of information (Almalki,2016). Collecting and analyzing both qualitative and quantitative data will minimise the chances of bias and will allow comparisons between the results leading to richer information about students’ psychological needs. Through the present study, a variation in perceptions around mental health and help-seeking behaviour was detected. As previous studies have already highlighted in other populations (Cheng, Kwan & Sevig, 2013; Mackenzie, Gekoski & Knox, 2006), attitudes around mental health and demographic characteristics such as gender, age and culture can have a great impact on intention to receive psychological support. Therefore, further studies could focus on how these factors can influence postgraduate students’ willingness to seek support.
The broader goal of this research project was to address possible barriers in seeking- help behaviours and understand better how students can overcome them. Through the present research, a gap between awareness and access to mental health was revealed. Despite that most postgraduate students seemed to be well informed about the role of mental health and wellbeing resources, the proportion of respondents who accessed a type of services was significant small. Given that the majority of students reported experiencing a mental health difficulty, it is contradictory that only a small number of students have asked for support from university mental health services. Attempting to bridge the awareness-access gap, researchers are planning to communicate the findings of the survey with university students through sharing leaflets. Additionally, another future plan is to publish the findings in a special forum to give public the opportunity to be informed about university mental health services, the challenges in seeking help and the benefits of receiving psychological support. Lastly, it is hoped that the research findings will be presented through a poster within the University of Aberdeen to inform the staff about students’ needs. This action may enhance positive chances in the way mental health services are delivered.
Embracing the development of culturally competent services
Mental health services should be equally accessible by the student community, regardless of someone’s religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation. Diversity in university population reflects in diverse psychological needs. Thus, cultural competency should be promoted within higher education. The term “cultural competency” refers to the ability of mental health practitioners to provide services appropriate to individuals’ cultural context (Bhui et al., 2007).Students who belong to LGBT community, come from different ethnic background or even postgraduate students facing unique struggles and often feel that their needs are being ignored. According to Hughes and Spanner (2019), this fact can discourage students from seeking support or drop out after the first appointment. Thus, it is necessary for support staff to be properly trained in order to be able to show cultural understanding and to respond effectively in students’ enquiries.
Developing further the Whole University Approach
The idea of the Whole University Approach it is emerged from the belief that there is a wide range of genetical, psychological, social and learning factors that can impact on students’ wellbeing. Focusing in only one aspect of students’ life would be probably inadequate. Gulliver, Farrer, Bennett & Griffiths (2019) suggest through their work that a holistic approach would probably be more effective for students than an individual one. Through this holistic approach, higher educational institutions are seen as “health promoting environments”, which aim to promote students and staff health, prevent mental illness from occurring and support people who already struggle with any type of disability. It is necessary for universities to work as safe social networks, providing students the opportunity to access mental health services, engage to their curriculum and connect with their community. Additionally, the whole university approach supports the collaboration between different university mental health services in order to promote service users’ wellbeing (Hughes &Spanner,2019). Moreover, the links between HEIs and NSH domains become stronger to promote students and staff wellbeing (Office for Students, 2019; Thorley,2017).
Increasing availability of university-located mental health services
As it has already highlighted in previous literature, students may be discouraged from seeking help because of the long waiting lists. When people need support, they usually seek for a direct respond to their query. However, mental health services are almost never available at the same time with students’ request. Through the last years, an increased demand in university mental health services was observed which led to longer waiting periods. Specifically, according to the Institute of Public Policy and Research (Thorley,2017), the vast majority of UK universities reported an significant increase in demand of Counselling Services (94%) and Disability Services (86%).In the present study, many students reported that, if they had the power to make changes to the university of Aberdeen, they would had made the campus-services more available to the student community. Additionally, another suggestion for improvement was the increase in the number of university counselors. It was highlighted the importance of an easy and fast access to the existing resources. Possible solutions to deal with limited availability is to minimise the waiting time for appointments, especially for urgent cases and increase the number of counsellors or broaden the time the services offered.