In total, the faculties and student bodies of 10 universities were represented at the event, which took place on Monday, 23 September 2019 at Church House, Westminster, including representatives from the eight UK veterinary schools, as well as University College Dublin in the Republic of Ireland and the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.
Opening the event, Lizzie Lockett, Royal RCVS CEO and MMI Director, said that the objective for the day was to identify commonalities in terms of the challenges around student mental health, consider where gaps may exist and how they can be mitigated, and form a network that can be continued beyond the day’s events.
She commented: “Over my time as Director of the Mind Matters Initiative I have been to many events about student mental health in which I saw fantastic research being done and really proactive preventative initiatives by the universities, as well as support mechanisms for those with mental ill-health. However, there was often one voice missing in it all – that of the students themselves.
“This is why I was very glad that we could pool together the experience and knowledge of academics, researchers, university support staff and, most crucially of all, hear the voices and opinions of the student body at this event.”
The event started with presentations from each of the universities represented in which they had the opportunity to talk about university- and-student-led initiatives to encourage students to be mindful of their well-being, encourage those who may need help to seek it, and provide support for students who have diagnosed mental health conditions.
Examples of such initiatives included the University of Bristol’s mental well-being toolbox, the University of Nottingham’s Big Vet / Little Vet student buddying system, and the RVC’s “Step Change” framework which is looking at diversifying mental health support through online programmes and well-being mentors.
Following this, there were three talks from those involved in student welfare, well-being and mental health, providing a perspective from outside of the UK veterinary profession. The first speaker was Jen Brandt, Director of Wellness and Diversity at the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), who spoke about well-being initiatives in the United States. This included the establishment of a network of mental health professionals working in American vet schools and a suicide prevention training programme that encourages peers to ask key questions that could save a life.
Alan Percy, Head of Counselling at the University of Oxford and Chair of the Mental Well-being in Higher Education Group, then spoke about the increase in demand for student mental health services, as well as increased expectations for support in Higher Education (HE), and the pressure this can place on student support services. He spoke about the importance of joined-up thinking throughout the HE sector and the different tiers of support, as well as setting more realistic expectations about student life, and building emotional resilience so that students develop their self-confidence and self-compassion to face life’s challenges.
The final talk was from Kate McAlister, Head of Student Welfare and Safeguarding at the Office for Students (OfS), the independent regulator for Higher Education in England, who spoke about how the OfS regulates duty of care for students amongst HE institutions, and how it provides guidance and encourages innovation within the sector. She also said that the OfS was investing £6 million in student mental health in England, in three key areas: transitions, early intervention and support.
A panel question and answer session was then held, covering topics such as the efficacy of resilience training and how to change the learning culture around perfectionism. The session was chaired by Professor Stuart Reid, Principal of the RVC and outgoing Chair of the Mind Matters Initiative, and featured all three speakers.
After a series of activities in which delegates were split into groups and asked to tackle issues such as the stigma around accessing support, the “hidden curriculum”, and the culture of perfectionism and long hours, topics suggested by delegates ahead of the event and voted for on the day, it was left to Lizzie to close the session.
Speaking after the event she said: “It was a fascinating and insightful day that gave us a holistic overview of what is going on in the veterinary education sector and the challenges it faces. However, it wasn’t just a day of talking about problems – it is clear that there is great will amongst universities to look after their staff and students and it was fantastic to hear about how many student- and-university-led initiatives are going on to raise awareness, tackle stigma, encourage seeking help and much more. The event gave us a very strong basis for future collaborations and we will now be looking to set up focused work-streams to tackle some of the different issues we discussed.”
A similar session for veterinary nursing students is under consideration for 2020.