university tutors mental health

Tutors don’t have enough mental health training, and unis need to change this

One student was told to drop out by her tutor when she shared her mental health problems

As a student, your first port of call when experiencing a mental health crisis is often your personal tutor.

You want support when you’re overwhelmed with essays, unable to cope with the pressures of uni life and almost at the point of dropping out altogether. But it’s not just academic support you may be seeking. For many, a personal tutor represents an adult you can trust to tell your deepest problems.

Students will often share a multitude of mental health problems with their personal tutors. It may be to discuss how it’s affecting their uni work and how to get back on track, or sometimes students just want to say how they’re feeling out loud.

However the problem is the vast majority of academics are not mental health professionals. But they are often seen as therapist, councillor and problem solver. And a lot of them are dealing with students coming to them with mental health concerns.

In fact, a survey of 130 academics in the UK found 96 per cent of them had encountered mental health problems amongst their students.

The issue is they’re not trained to deal with these problems. They can be kind, understanding and listen, but they aren’t actually sufficiently trained. In the same survey only a third of the academics said their institutions had prepared them for working with and supporting students.

And now in the middle of a pandemic, we are left with a student mental health crisis and tutors unable to help them.

‘I was told to leave the course and come back next year’

Kate*, a Master’s student attending a university in the North East, was told to drop out by her tutor when she told them about her mental health. Kate told The Tab she had approached her course leader to tell them she was “finding it very difficult to attend class and focus on my studies.”

Rather than receiving the support she expected, she was told to drop out and come back next year. Kate said she was “disappointed” with their comments as she did “not expect them to tell me to leave, rather I expected some form of help from them.”

Luckily Kate was able to find support elsewhere at her university. She contacted the counselling services at her university who provided her with a student coach and have been regularly checking in on her.

‘I thought coming to uni would be a whole different experience, but from the reaction from some lecturers and my tutor it’s made me feel even more isolated’

Many students feel the lack of communication between tutors and staff this term has been awful.

Sophia* is a first year student at a university in the south of England. She spoke to The Tab about her excitement of starting university this year and her love of learning.

However she said it’s been difficult and isolating spending her first term of uni in halls. Her flatmates don’t really interact with each other, resulting in Sophia spending a lot of time alone.

Sophia told The Tab the lack of support from her lecturers and personal tutor has made things even harder. She has had one session with her personal tutor since the start of September.

The tutor turned up late and asked her generic questions about the course, but there was no conversation around her settling in or how she was finding university.

Sophia said: “There was no talk about mental or physical health, how lockdown is treating me or even them, or anything other than what was ‘on the script’.

“It’s infuriating to have had little to pretty much no contact or even concern, especially being a first year in halls during a pandemic.”

The lack of support has left Sophia feeling like she is “just part of a money making machine” and that she thought “coming to uni would be a whole different experience but from the reaction from some lecturers and my tutor it’s made me feel even more isolated.”

‘I experienced a panic attack…and was told to drop out’

However it is not just this tumultuous year that has seen students experience a lack of support from their tutors.

Georgia is a third year student, who experienced an incredibly blunt response when she told her tutor in first year that she wasn’t coping well – she was told to drop out.

Two years ago when Georgia first started at university she wasn’t enjoying first year. She didn’t get on with her flatmates, spent a lot of time alone and wasn’t doing well academically.

When it came to doing a presentation she experienced a panic attack before hand and her instant reaction was to go to her seminar tutor.

In the meeting she told the tutor her struggles. The tutor simply told her that she was “one of ‘those’ students who needed to drop out and return home.”

Georgia was not told about the resources available at the university. However she didn’t end up listening to her tutor and is now in her third year.

‘They couldn’t have been more understanding’

Fortunately there are times when a student has found their personal tutor to be incredibly supportive of their mental health problems.

Jack* spoke to The Tab about a personal tutor of his who he said “couldn’t have been more understanding.”

He had returned to uni without a job, feeling a lack of motivation and experiencing some anxiety. After speaking to his personal tutor, who encouraged him to see his GP, he was diagnosed with acute depression and PTSD.

As the year progressed things got worse when a friend from home died in a car accident. Jack said his tutor was incredibly helpfully and supportive during this time.

They wrote to all his lecturers to explain the situation, which allowed him to have extensions for work. They checked in on him regularly and were understanding when his medication was making him feel worse. He said his tutor just “made things so much better.”

‘Our concern doesn’t stop the moment we press ‘send’ on an email’

Hearing Jack’s story was reassuring to know there are tutors out there who will go above and beyond for their students.

However, should a tutor, who has likely had minimal mental health training, be the one students rely on? Is it fair for a staff member who is at the university for academic reasons to be the first person accessible to a student for deeper personal issues? Should students be given a separate tutor who is properly trained to deal with their pastoral care and to have the academics purely available to ask questions on referencing and what they really meant in that lecture?

Apart from the odd few, the fault does not lie with the individual tutors. Most of the time tutors want to help but they have not received the training to do so from the university they work at.

The Tab spoke to Dr Felicity Sedgewick, a lecturer and personal tutor at the University of Bristol.

She told us at Bristol personal tutors receive an induction from the School Senior Tutor. It covers mental health support and tells the staff how to “signpost to internal and external services with more specialist training.”

Dr Sedgewick also mentioned Bristol provides Mental Health Training in Higher Education in partnership with MHFA England, which she completed, however it is not compulsory.

She told The Tab every year there is a formal schedule of meetings to follow, they are meant to see first years three times a term and other students twice a term. Dr Sedgewick mentioned that this year many of the tutors she knows have been checking in more regularly with their students.

She said: “We have a formal schedule of meetings, so we should see first year students at least three times a term, and all other students twice a term. That isn’t a hard and fast rule though – I see or have email chats with most of my tutees between the formal meetings. Especially this year, most of the tutors I know have been checking in with students much more often.”

Dr Sedgewick said she worries about her students and wants to them to do well and enjoy university life. For herself and her fellow tutors their concern doesn’t stop “the moment you close the ‘teams’ call or press ‘send’ on an email.”

She said: “I definitely worry about some of my students ‘outside hours’, particularly those who I know are facing mental health challenges. It has an impact on me because I want them to be supported, and to do well, and to enjoy their time at university. We take on more care and concern for students than they realise, and that doesn’t stop the moment you close the teams call or press ‘send’ on an email.”

She thinks tutors have a “duty of care” towards students, but they should not be responsible for the students’ mental health. In fact Dr Sedgewick said she would love to see “more specialist mental health staff available for supporting students.”

Though tutors should always be available for “day-to-day stresses of university life”, Dr Sedgewick thinks that when problems go beyond average stresses tutors need to have someone to refer students to that is properly trained to support them with their mental health problems.

‘Personal tutors are not mental health professionals’

The Tab contacted the 24 Russell Group universities to ask what their current mental health training plans are for tutors.

Of the 24 contacted, six universities provided The Tab a detailed overview of their plans. Five universities told The Tab they would look into it, and the other 13 did not reply.

A University of Edinburgh spokesperson told The Tab: “Each School has a senior tutor who provides training for personal tutors at the start of each academic year.” However they emphasise “personal tutors are not mental health professionals”, but they are expected to “provide academic guidance and signpost students to relevant internal and external support services available to students.”

The University of Warwick follows a similar approach and all new academic staff receive training about how to “support students to identify and access the Wellbeing Support Services and other pastoral support available to them at the university.” All academic departments are also retrained on a regular basis.

A spokesperson for The University of Nottingham told The Tab: “All personal tutors are given guidance on identifying and responding to students in difficulty and are taught to recognise signs that a student is struggling.” They are also expected to retrain every two years and there is an “Effective Personal Tutoring” course which “sets out the purpose of and explores the challenges around personal tutoring”.

At Oxford University, staff are offered the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust E-learning training and in person training from the counselling service, however it is all voluntary and a spokesperson told The Tab: “We can’t monitor how many people have done the e-learning.”

A spokesperson for Cardiff University told The Tab personal tutors have access to a number of online training programmes which “includes advice on identifying and spotting signs of mental health issues.” However they say it’s important to define the role of a personal tutor and that their duties do not include “counselling or any form of medical advice and guidance relating to physical and/or mental health.”

Though the University of Southampton has had training for staff before, they have now embarked on a new training programme for student-facing staff which is “focused on supporting students who may be experiencing mental health difficulties”, and has been co-designed by the charity, Solent Mind.

The course is made up of two parts, of which staff are expected to complete both. It will “help participants signpost to resources within our University and/or local services as well as national resources. It will also assist in helping staff to understand how to set their own boundaries to help maintain positive wellbeing for themselves and others.”

It is not only academic staff who have taken up this training so far, but also the security team and others in student facing roles.

It is clear to see that some universities are really trying to make strides with their mental health support and tutors like Dr Felicity Sedgewick care deeply about their students’ welfare. However academics already have a lot to do outside their role as tutors and it seems unfair to lay the burden of mental health support on them.

Universities have mental health professionals ready to help, but they’re often overstretched and underfunded. Tutors should not become trained therapists – or in anyway replace mental health professionals – but it seems logical that tutors are trained to spot the signs of someone struggling, know how to signpost useful resources, and importantly know how to listen to a student in distress.

As Dr Sedgewick says, tutors want students to “be supported, and to do well, and enjoy their time at university”, tutors just need to be given the training to help them do so.

If you or someone you know has been affected by this story, please speak to someone or contact Samaritans on 116 123 at any time. You can also contact Anxiety UK on 03444 775 774, Mind on 0300 123 3393, and Calm (Campaign against living miserably, for men aged 15 to 35) on 0800 58 58 58.

The Tab’s You Matter campaign is putting a focus on student mental health right now. If you’ve got a story you’d like to tell us – whether it’s difficulties with getting uni support, or anything you think we should hear, get in touch in confidence by emailing [email protected]

You matter.

*Names have been changed

Featured Image Credit: Insta_photos/Shuttershock

Read more from The Tab’s You Matter campaign:

How to start a conversation with your friend about their mental health: An expert’s guide

Named and shamed: Eleven unis didn’t appoint any new mental health staff this year

Exeter is the only UK uni to reduce its mental health support staff in the last year