Having dropped out of university because of loneliness and depression, Hayley Mulenda – a former speaker at Jisc’s annual Digifest event - says effective use of data analytics and greater diversity of academic staff are crucial in supporting students.
My life spiralled out of control when I first went to university, back in 2015.
Student mental health wasn’t an issue back then in the way it is now, so I tried to ignore what I was going through - and it got worse. I lost my appetite. I avoided talking to people. I jumped off all my social media platforms. I stopped going out. I wanted to shut down and quiet the noise in my head. That’s when suicidal thoughts started to creep in. I was in a dark place and I was frightened.
All too common
Worryingly, among today’s undergraduates, experiences like mine are all too common. In March 2019, an online survey of almost 38,000 UK university students showed rising rates of psychological distress and illness, with “alarmingly high” levels of anxiety, loneliness, substance misuse and thoughts of self-harm.
For me, the move to university was my first away from home. Like almost nine in ten of the students polled, I struggled with feelings of anxiety. Like 33% of them, I was lonely. This was largely because, at the place where I went to study, it seemed to me that I was the only black girl, the only student from London, and one of just a few from a working-class background. I couldn’t relate to anyone - but because I’d previously given motivational talks as a public speaker at school, it felt like a failure that I couldn’t motivate myself. Things just unravelled.
A call for greater diversity
So there needs to be greater diversity across the sector, and that goes for staff too. Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) figures published last February show that less than 1% of university professors are black and that ethnic minority academics are less likely to win research grants.
Despite that, when it came to getting support as a student, I was one of the lucky ones. When I fell into that dark place, my family brought me home and, with their love and support, I came to recognise that I needed help. I set myself little milestones and trained myself into a new routine.
We need to give greater support to young people as they transition from school – and that support needs to be more accessible and diverse, and it needs to work at a practical level. If a university’s mental health support service is way across town, someone struggling with low self-esteem, who can’t even get down the corridor to have a shower, isn’t going to make it to an appointment.
My mental health contact at university was an older, white man. He could have been the kindest person in the world, but I still couldn’t relate to him as a young black woman from East London.
There is also another way in which institutions can provide vital help.
When I was suffering with my mental health, my attendance dropped and the university threatened to kick me off the course. Learners who aren’t engaging, who aren’t turning up to lectures, shouldn’t be threatened; they should be flagged up to professionals and supported.
Fortunately, the technology to do that already exists: learning analytics pull data together to help institutions identify changes in students’ behaviour and see when they might be at risk of failing or dropping out. So, if a student who started the term going to the library a lot suddenly stops going, that’s something to check – to reach out, see if they’re OK, and provide any extra help they require. Jisc and the ICO have produced a code of practice for wellbeing and mental health analytics to support universities in doing this ethically, and with the input and permission of students.
I know that, for students who are struggling, timing is crucial. For me, the right person stepping in at the right time could have made all the difference. Using data carefully and supportively could be a game-changer.
To learn more about supporting wellbeing with technology, register for Jisc's wellbeing events. For inspiring talks and debates on the future of education, attend Jisc’s immersive virtual event, Digifest 2021, 8-11 March 2021.