Module 5, Topic 4
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Theme 17: Inclusivity and intersectional mental health

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What does it cover?

  • Staff and students who may face additional challenges due to structural, personal or cultural inequalities e.g. LGBTQ+ students, BAME students, care leavers, carers, disabled students, mature students, widening participation, first generation students, international students, students for whom English is a second language and others (this is not an exhaustive list)
  • Students who may face additional challenges due to Higher Education specific inequalities such as their mode of study, relationship to campus or status as non– traditional students e.g. Online learners, part time students, postgraduate research and postgraduate taught students, commuter students, students on professional placements and students studying overseas

Principles of good practice

17.1 Universities take action to understand their populations and staff and students’ differing needs and experiences.

17.2 Universities ensure that the culture and environment is inclusive, welcoming and safe for all members of the university community.

17.3 Universities develop specific interventions that address the barriers to mental health and wellbeing faced by particular groups due to structural, personal or cultural inequalities.

17.4 Universities develop specific interventions that address the barriers to mental health and wellbeing faced by particular groups due to higher education specific inequalities, such as mode of study or access.

17.5 Universities ensure support services work to improve their cultural competence and are able to respond to different student backgrounds, characteristics and experiences.

Why is this theme important and what matters?

Staff and students may face additional barriers to success and challenges to their wellbeing due to their background, characteristics, aspects of identity, mode of study or relationship to their campus and university [12345].

Inequality can, in and of itself, have negative effects on mental health[6]. There are numerous causes of this, which can include adverse experiences, not feeling understood or accepted, feeling actively rejected or being threatened by the surrounding culture[3789].

In addition, practical barriers faced by some staff and students can have negative impacts on their wellbeing. For example, not only can some disabilities make navigating campus more physically tiring, but disabled students also have additional practical tasks to undertake, such as arranging and managing their support packages and ensuring that reasonable adjustments are consistently implemented across their programme [21011]. BAME students in our consultations highlighted that the process of having to regularly explain their background, culture, experiences and language, served as an additional barrier and set of tasks. All of which can be a drain on resources, energy and motivation. Additionally, student poverty and low income has been associated with lower mental health and wellbeing[12].

However, it is important not to position those staff and students as necessarily vulnerable or to suggest weakness. Indeed, research indicates that many students facing these barriers possess higher levels of resources, resilience and self–management skill than their peers. It is simply that the unequal challenges these individuals face can exhaust even this additional resource [13].

The Equality Act (2010) details a set of protected characteristics that describe those most likely to experience inequality and discrimination in society at large. However, within a university setting, students may have experiences which are negative for their wellbeing as a result of characteristics that are specific to the university community, such as mode of study.

For instance, research shows that post–graduate students face particular challenges to their mental health and may lack effective support, which understands and responds to their specific needs [1415]. Online students face specific challenges as a result of studying away from campus, lacking the presence of a learning community and, in many cases, being unable to access support services provided by universities [516] .

This suggests that mental health inequalities at university need to be considered through two lenses:
1) inequality of experiences due to background, characteristic and identity and;
2) inequality of experience due to mode of study.

Of course, it is also important to consider how these identities intersect. Some individuals will find themselves in several of these categories and therefore, may face an accumulation of challenges and barriers.

As a consequence, some students may need additional or alternative adaptations, interventions or support. This means that university support services must have sufficient levels of cultural competency and provide additional interventions that are relevant and responsive to the unequal challenges students might face[17] .

However, this alone is not enough[38]. To be successful and remain mentally healthy, staff and students must encounter a culture that feels welcoming and to which they can build a genuine sense of belonging. If the environment feels unsafe, toxic, uncaring or dangerous, to any individual, this will inevitably have a negative impact on their wellbeing[78]. This is also true of environments that are isolating or those in which an individual feels they need to shape or hide their identity. Relying on support services for remedial action is not a sufficient response to toxic culture. Rather, it is necessary for universities to promote a whole university culture, in which all staff and students can flourish, be fulfilled, be their whole self and maintain good wellbeing. This does not mean members of the university community should not encounter challenging opinions that they may find disagreeable. It does however, mean that such encounters should be respectful, conducted with academic integrity, in search of greater wisdom and understanding and within a well maintained, safe and welcoming environment.

The university environment should be a place in which
no group is ‘vulnerable,’ and which recognises that routes to
better mental health, although different, are possible for all.

This challenge is best approached with careful consideration of the specific context of each university. While larger universities may have a focus on groups traditionally considered through an equality and diversity lens, smaller institutions may have concerns about sub–populations that are specific to their context. For example, agricultural colleges have raised concerns about students in their communities, who do not come from traditional farming backgrounds, and can therefore experience isolation and a lack of belonging.


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