Defining mental health and wellbeing

There is wide acknowledgement that the terminology around mental health and wellbeing is unstable and contested and so rather than trying to give a list of definitions, this section aims to enable librarians to consider and understand the underlying issues, including how they operate unequally across different student groups.

It’s important to remember that we all have mental health and wellbeing - often this is talked about as a continuum, or scale, with people in crisis, experiencing symptoms of diagnosed conditions and struggling at one end, and people striving and flourishing at the other. We are all somewhere on that scale, and where we are can change on a daily basis.

Often, activities in academic libraries sit closer to the idea of improving wellbeing than dealing with managing diagnosed mental health conditions. As a term, there is a lot of debate about what wellbeing is. It can be used synonymously with other terms like happiness or life satisfaction; some people dislike it as a term because of this. Its use alongside mental health problems is also criticised, as others see a focus on wellbeing in this context as pathologising or medicalising emotions and experiences that are a part of everyday life.

When we talk about mental health diagnoses such as depression, anxiety, psychosis and schizophrenia, we often think about people being in severe distress. This can be the case, but some people with diagnoses are often managing well on a day to day basis and have identified good strategies to help them to manage their conditions. They are also the group most likely to already be accessing support through other means, such as the NHS or University Counselling/ Supportive services. Again, symptoms can change over time.

Mental health diagnoses are not experienced and disclosed equally across the student (and staff) population. There is evidence that culture plays a part in framing, understanding and disclosing mental health problems. This means that, for example, some international students may be unlikely to declare a problem.  

The latest UCAS report, which reports statistics about disclosure of mental health problems to universities shows that:

  • Disclosure has increased hugely from 0.7% of students in 2011 to 3.7% in 2020.

  • Particular groups of students are more likely to declare a mental health condition. Women are more likely to declare than men, LGBT+ students are around six times more likely to share a mental health condition, and care experienced students are almost three times as likely.

  • Students on some courses are more likely to disclose than others - the 2020 statistics show that students on languages degrees are most likely to declare a mental health condition, and those on medicine and dentistry courses are least likely.

These statistics underline two key points:

First, the value of recognising how mental health intersects with other characteristics and support needs. Some groups of students will experience more distress than others and need more support.

Second, the need to recognise that disclosing a mental health problem is not the same experiencing one. Students on a medical degree, for example, are less likely to declare a mental health condition because they fear the professional implications of disclosure. And while women are more likely to declare than men, the unmet need in supporting men can be seen in the consistently higher suicide rate for men than women.

Another key point is that many of us think of mental health problems as an individual issue, rather than something that is broader. However, there is growing recognition that we all live in a particular context or environment, and that the role of community in both creating and treating mental health issues is important.

Finally: one way to think about the experience of mental health problems is that they occur when the challenges we experience in life outweigh the resources we have to cope with them. This can be true of anyone, but students may be experiencing specific challenges that lead them to experience poor mental health. Mind, the mental health charity, identify particular concerns around:

  • Meeting and working with new people

  • Coping with homesickness

  • Managing money (and debt) for the first time

  • Maintaining relationships with family and friends at home

  • Leaving home and living with new people

  • Academic pressures, including exams, deadlines and presentations

Further challenges specific to the student population are highlighted in the next section, and all provide potential areas for the library to consider to provide activities and resources to help students to manage these challenges.