It is time for universities to take mental health seriously
The widening student-to-lecturer ratio means that lecturers have to teach large classes, while at the same time research and publish in reputable journals and engage in community service like their peers in the Global North.
Students in these institutions scramble for funding for living expenses, accommodation and academic resources which affect their overall academic performance.
Against this backdrop, pressure to meet targets has contributed to tensions between management, staff and students in higher institutions and some have ended in demonstrations and interrupted academic calendars.
For instance, tension between management and students of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology escalated to a violent demonstration on 22 October 2018.
More recently, tension between staff and the management of the University of Education, Winneba also attracted student involvement, culminating in a violent demonstration by students on 14 March 2019. This led to the destruction of property worth millions of Ghanaian cedi and raised concerns among stakeholders of Ghanaian higher education.
The government, in search of amicable solutions, set up committees to unpack the problems that led to the action.
While not personally privy to the specific issues that led to these protests, I believe it's likely the committees might have downplayed one issue that continues to be neglected in Ghanaian higher education institutions: mental health and well-being.
While typically, individuals have personal stressors, it is likely that developments described above, including disruptions to the academic programme, would precipitate added psychological distress among some of those involved.
An absence of appropriate institutional support in this context can be detrimental, and there are a series of measures that can be taken.
The first of these would be to ask students to submit a professional psychological evaluation report. Already, students submit medical reports as part of the admission process and an additional psychological report would produce a “holistic” picture of the student. To avoid discrimination, the report could be submitted after gaining admission but would provide valuable data about the peculiar needs of a student and requisite interventions such as group therapies and peer support in medication adherence.
Such a practice would indicate to parents and would-be students the importance of psychological health and well-being and may encourage some to look for information to develop self-help strategies to maintain their well-being.
Higher educational institutions could also establish mental health and well-being units and adequately resource them to be effective in the support they would provide. Given that most institutions have counselling units, both units could be merged as a common resource centre to deal with guidance and counselling as well as mental health issues. It is important that this centre be easily accessible, and users have confidence in it in order to sustain a willingness to seek help.
It is essential that, guided by the principle of confidentiality, data about services provided should be collected and analysed to aid in decision-making to enhance the effectiveness of services provided and the development of the centre.
Mental health awareness
Campaigns through campus radio networks, brochures and posters in visible public places can help to raise awareness about mental health issues and the institutional support systems available. Such efforts would signal that management considers mental health and well-being important. Overall, this might help to reduce the stigma related to mental health and encourage open discussions and help-seeking behaviours without the individual feeling stigmatised.
Such awareness programmes are likely to increase the influx of staff and students seeking help, and adequate preparation should be made for them by creating an environment that assures privacy and confidentiality and reduces the waiting time to receive help. High levels of readiness and willingness to provide assistance by personnel of the centre are also important. A favourable perception of experiences at the centre will generate positive attitudes towards help-seeking as a routine practice.
Improve mental health literacy
Core staff and members of management who often interact with both staff and students would ideally need to be trained to improve their mental health literacy. This exercise may enhance their knowledge about mental health, help to develop a favourable attitude towards mental health, and boost their own confidence in dealing with a problem when it is perceived – either in themselves or in others. Early responses can then be made to address a problem for better outcomes.
In order to start to deal with the issue, however, managers of higher education institutions need to acknowledge the prevalence of psychological distress among students and staff and the fact that institutional neglect impacts negatively upon both staff and students, affecting all planned objectives and developments.
Consequently, institutions need to take seriously the establishment or upscaling of any existing mental health and well-being resources to effectively support staff and students experiencing psychological difficulties. Managing such difficulties takes us all a step closer to meeting stakeholder’s expectations and perhaps mitigating the phenomenon of violent demonstrations on campuses.
Yaw Amankwa Arthur is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Health and Sport, Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia. His research focuses on mental health literacy in countries in the Global South.