Module 3, Topic 2
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Theme 9: Staff Development

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What does it cover?

  • Staff training and development on mental health
  • Role specific training on responding to student mental ill health and clarifying boundaries
  • Ongoing development of staff in mental health roles
  • Training managers to support staff in supporting students
  • Training managers to support good wellbeing, within their teams and respond appropriately to staff experiencing poor mental health

Principles of good practice

9.1 Universities support staff to develop, individually and collectively, the confidence and ability to promote positive mental health and respond appropriately to poor mental health.

9.2 Universities support staff to recognise and respond appropriately to poor mental health and signs of risk, signpost effectively and maintain the safe boundaries of their role.

9.3 Staff receive mental health training that is context and role specific.

9.4 Universities promote a workplace environment and management practices that support formal and informal reflection, consultation and development for staff who may encounter student mental illness.

9.5 Universities provide formal development for managers that enables them to promote good wellbeing within teams, understand the challenges staff may face, provide appropriate support for their teams and have knowledge of resources that can help.

9.6 Universities ensure staff in mental health roles engage in regular, ongoing clinical development.

Why is this theme important and what matters?

Given the apparent prevalence of poor mental health among staff and students, it is not a surprise that many staff report multiple experiences of responding to students and colleagues experiencing poor mental health [12]. Staff who are in non–mental health positions, describe responding to mental health problems as an inevitable part of their role[1]. However, many also state that they feel under–prepared and unsupported to respond appropriately and effectively, and are unclear about the boundaries of their role in this area (1, 3). Partly as a consequence of this lack of preparation and support, staff report that presentations of poor mental health can have significant negative impacts on their mental health[14] .

It is impossible to predict to whom a member of staff or student may disclose. For example, in instances in which an individual is seriously ill, this may be first observed by a member of security or estates, a librarian, a careers advisor, a receptionist, a member of halls staff or an academic. Whenever these disclosures happen, universities have a duty to respond.

Universities have a responsibility to ensure all staff are prepared and supported to respond appropriately to presentations of poor mental health, and to maintain their own safety and wellbeing when this happens. This is not to suggest that every member of staff must become a mental health expert. To aim for this is unrealistic and unhelpful. Many staff will not have the natural aptitude for such work and it is unreasonable to expect them to do so, given their roles. Even academics who are also mental health professionals report challenges to maintaining appropriate boundaries within their academic role[5] .

Many universities have responded by making training available to their staff and there is evidence that this can be effective in a university setting[67]. However, it should be noted that many staff are wary of receiving extra training [1]. Much of this stems from a concern that, if they receive additional training, they will be expected to have greater expertise and responsibility. As such, many fear they may miss something, get something wrong or make an ill individual worse [13]. This is an understandable concern, which is mirrored by staff in other workplaces [8].

Mental health training works best when it is part of an overarching structure involving networks of staff with clearly defined and communicated roles, support for those responding to mental health problems, good management and training that is refreshed regularly [8]. Some authors have suggested that one–off training that exists without this support can blur boundaries further and potentially contribute to risk [8].

Staff quoted in research have suggested that generic mental health training, while helpful, often lacks relevance to their role [13]. Staff felt they would benefit from training that was specifically developed and targeted at their role and the context in which they worked.

This would help them better understand their particular boundaries and responsibilities, the resources and support that was available in their institution, and how it could be accessed.

Currently much mental health training appears
to focus on high risk or crisis events [78]. As part of a whole university approach, staff may benefit from understanding how they can have a positive impact on mental health and wellbeing, within the proper boundaries of their role.

The purpose of training in mental health for staff who are not in clinical mental health roles can be summarised as:

  1. Increasing confidence and ability to respond to instances of poor mental health.
  2. Increasing the likelihood of mental illness being recognised and responded to appropriately by an eco–system of trained staff, that doesn’t place responsibility on a single individual to ‘get it right’.
  3. Creating an open, inclusive and accepting culture around mental health.
  4. Improving understanding of boundaries and improving ability to safely maintain and communicate these boundaries with others.
  5. Improving the effectiveness of signposting to appropriate services or interventions.
  6. Increasing understanding of the ways staff can use the day to day functions of their role to support good wellbeing.

This can be supported by other inclusivity training that considers the needs and experiences of different groups and individuals.

There have been suggestions, both in Charter consultations with staff and in the research, that there is a need for staff to have space to develop through reflection and support from others[1] . In other words, that development in this area does not just take place in a training room but must be consistently nurtured within teams and peers and through line management [1].

Staff in the Charter consultations highlighted the importance of being able to have informal conversations with colleagues when they were concerned about a student.

Having the opportunity to talk through instances with more experienced colleagues was seen as being particularly beneficial. This includes being able to have conversations with relevant colleagues from across the university e.g. academic staff being able to discuss concerns with support services colleagues.

Given this, there is a need for managers to understand the challenges their staff may face, recognise the importance of staff wellbeing, be able to provide appropriate support and have knowledge of the available resources that can help. Specifically, there is a need for managers to understand the emotional impact that can result from responding to instances of mental illness and the time and energy that it can absorb. This has implications for the appointment and development of managers within universities and suggests that there is a need for management training to directly address this issue.

Finally, universities have a responsibility to ensure that staff in mental health roles, such as counsellors and mental health teams, are suitably qualified and are able to access appropriate CPD to ensure their knowledge, understanding and skills remain up to date. Clinical practice in mental health is continually evolving and responding to new insights and international evidence shows that ongoing CPD is vital for improved outcomes and safety [9].


1. Hughes, G., Panjwani, M., Tulcidas, P. & Byrom, N. (2018). Student mental health: The role and responsibilities of academics. Oxford: Student Minds.
2. Gulliver, A., Farrer, L., Bennett, K. & Griffiths, K.M. (2019) University staff mental health literacy, stigma and their experience of students with mental health problems, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 43:3, pp. 434–442, DOI: 10.1080/0309877X.2017.1367370
3. Gulliver, A., Farrer, L., Bennett, K., Ali, K., Hellsing, A., Katruss, N & Griffiths K.M. (2018) University staff experiences of students with mental health problems and their perceptions of staff training needs, Journal of Mental Health, 27:3, pp. 247–256, DOI: 10.1080/09638237.2018.1466042
4. McAllister, M., Wynaden, D., Happell, B., Flynn, T., Walters, V., Duggan, R., Byrne, L., Heslop, K. & Gaskin, C. (2014). Staff experiences of providing support to students who are managing mental health challenges: A qualitative study from two Australian universities. Advances in Mental Health, 12:3, pp. 192–201.
5. Hughes, G. J. & Byrom, N. C. (2019), Managing student mental health: The challenges faced by academics on professional healthcare courses. Journal of Advanced Nursing. 00: 1– 10.
6. MHFA (2019). Higher Education – MHFA Champions. [online] MHFA Portal. Available at:–education/1–day/ [Accessed 10/10/19].
7. Massey, J., Brooks, M. & Burrow, J (2014) Evaluating the Effectiveness of Mental Health First Aid Training Among Student Affairs Staff at a Canadian University, Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 51:3, 323–336, DOI: 10.1515/ jsarp–2014–0032
8. Narayanasamy, M., Geraghty, J., Coole, C., Nouri, F., Thomson, L., Callaghan, P. & Drummond, A. (2018). Mental health first aid in the workplace: A feasibility study. Wigston: IOSH.–at–work–full–report.pdf
9. The Health Foundation, (2012). Quality improvement training for healthcare professionals. London: The Evidence Centre on behalf of the Health Foundation. Available [Accessed 09/11/19]