This post was created by PGCert participants in Team Pluto as part of their assessment for Unit 1 of the course. The brief was to evaluate technologies that could help students with specific learning needs to learn more effectively.
There has been an increased awareness around mental health and well-being in the UK in recent years, and higher education is no exception. A 2017 report from IPPR (The Institute for Public Policy Research) noted that in the last 10 years, the number of students disclosing a mental health condition to their university has increased fivefold (Thorley, 2017). The report offers some level of detail in the statistics, noting that “female first-year students are more likely than male first year students to disclose a mental health condition (2.5 per cent compared to 1.4 per cent) (2015/16)” (Ibid., 2017), however the data fails to recognise the intersectional nature of this issue. In a 2018 paper, Jason Arday notes:
“The prevalence of common mental disorders varies markedly in different BME communities. For example, within a university context, South Asian women encounter higher rates of anxiety and depression (63.5% compared with 28.5% of white women)” (Arday, 2018: 2)
The lack of appropriate support for BAME individuals has been widely reported. In a 2020 article in the Guardian, Coco Khan refers to a 2013 ‘We still need to talk’ report published by mental health charity Mind on improving access to talking therapies. In response to the data in the report, Khan notes:
“With BME patients, their findings were shocking: only 10% of those surveyed felt that their talking therapy service adequately took into consideration their cultural background, with a third of the respondents believing that the service was not fit for BME people.” (Khan, 2020 citing We Need to Talk, 2013)
The author also acknowledges the history of oppression towards people of colour in psychiatry, specific cultural attitudes towards mental health, as well as the lack of diversity in the mental health workforce as contributing barriers to access (Khan, 2020). In addition to this, Khan notes “there is a growing body of research to suggest that regular exposure to racism increases the chances of developing psychosis and depression.” (2020).
In the recent UCL BAME Awarding Gap Project, belonging, isolation, marginalization, curriculum and degree attainment and retention were highlighted as constancies to marginalization in university contexts (UCL, 2020). The report notes that a sense of belonging is “critical to students’ academic motivation, success and well-being” and resulting feelings of isolation were prevalent in the BAME students who took part in the study (UCL 2020:29). The report goes on to acknowledge the importance of safe learning environments, and in addition to the above barriers, how racial microaggressions also negatively affect BAME students’ mental health (UCL, 2020:42). This is further supported by Arday, where he notes:
“Black students, and, more widely, BME people, experience mental health differently. These experiences are often situated and tinged within racist connotations. For ethnic minorities, mental health problems are deeply rooted in different systemic issues” (2018:21)
In the paper, Arday further suggests that a significant barrier to accessing mental health services for BAME students is the lack of culturally appropriate services (Arday, 2018:1). Within our research we came across ‘Liberate’ – a subscription-based meditation app which is created by and for the Black community. The app offers resources for “common cultural experiences, like internalized racism and micro-aggressions” (Liberate, 2021), aiming to reduce anxiety and stress and also promote the sense of community through shared-experience. Although the app is designed for the black experience, the meditations and talks are led by +40 BIPOC (Black, Indengeous and People of Colour) with “diverse backgrounds in lineage, perspective and approach, so that everyone can find a practice in their voice.” (Ibid., 2021). Liberate are also in partnership with the NHS until March 2021, offering the “culturally sensitive and diverse meditations and talks” for free to their staff (NHS Our People, 2021). The app is free to download and allows initial access to limited materials. For full access however, a monthly subscription is required costing £7.99 per month. The app is available on iOs & Android devices.
We believe Liberate could support BAME student mental health and wellbeing at university, and so help overcome recognised barriers to learning such as belonging, isolation, marginalization and, in the bigger picture, degree attainment and retention (UCL, 2020). One pro of the app is accessibility, and students with compatible devices can download it at their own discretion. Working at the local level of ‘the device’, might be effective in removing stigma surrounding mental health and additionally, begin to culturally diversify mental health services (Arday, 2018:21). Another pro of the app is the community focus, with content delivered by diverse practitioners and so providing a familiar and safe space to explore a range of themes including anger, pride, micro-aggressions & healing from racial trauma.
In terms of cons, accessibility also comes in here too. The app requires access to a compatible device, and in addition, full access costs £7.99 per month. Taking the lead of the NHS, universities could offer this as a free service for BAME students, but the issue of digital exclusion would also need to be addressed. Although the app offers a convenient and reasonably accessible service, the implementation of this app could be seen as a superficially performative solution if the wider issues aren’t also being addressed within the institution (Mahmud & Gagnon,2020:5). Instead, the app should be used in partnership with institutional-wide efforts to decolonise the institution. As noted by Bhopal and Henderson, this needs to extend beyond the curriculum and reading lists to include “staff and student recruitment, inclusive pedagogy and a radical overhaul of senior leadership to truly holistically decolonise the academy” (2019:5). Thinking back to the lack of diverse and culturally relevant mental health services for BAME individuals, diverse staff recruitment within the university needs to go beyond academic and technical staff, and also include those employed in student services, as well as any external wellbeing/counselling partners.
In conclusion, ‘Liberate’ could offer a good starting point for making mental health services both more accessible and culturally inclusive. However, as noted by Arday (2018), Mahmud & Gagnon (2020) and Bhopal and Henderson, (2019) this cannot be the end point and this is not a ‘solution’. Universities need to take an active role in decolonising the institution in addition to offering more diverse and culturally relevant support for BAME students.
Arday, J. (2018) ‘Understanding Mental Health: What Are the Issues for Black and Ethnic Minority Students at University?’, Social Sciences, 7(10), p. 196. doi: 10.3390/socsci7100196.
Bhopal, K. and Henderson, H. (2019) Advancing Equality in Higher Education: An Exploratory Study of the Athena SWAN and Race Equality Charters. Birmingham: University of Birmingham, p. 59. Available at: https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/Documents/college-social-sciences/education/reports/advancing-equality-and-higher-education.pdf (Accessed: 2 February 2021).
Brooks, F. (2014) The link between pupil health and wellbeing and attainment : A briefing for head teachers, governors and staff in education settings. London: Public Health England. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/370686/HT_briefing_layoutvFINALvii.pdf (Accessed: 2 February 2021).
Khan, C. (2020) ‘“I thought I was a lost cause”: how therapy is failing people of colour’, The Guardian, 10 February 2020. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/feb/10/therapy-failing-bme-patients-mental-health-counselling (Accessed: 1 February 2021).
Liberate (2021) About Liberate. Available at: https://liberatemeditation.com/ (Accessed: 3 February 2021).
Mahmud, A. and Gagnon, J. (2020) ‘Racial disparities in student outcomes in British higher education: examining Mindsets and bias’, Teaching in Higher Education, pp. 1–16. doi: 10.1080/13562517.2020.1796619.
NHS Our People (2021) Support : Liberate Meditation. Available at: https://people.nhs.uk/help/support-apps/liberate-meditation/ (Accessed: 3 February 2021).
Thorley, C. (2017) Improving Student Mental Health in the UK’s Universities. London: the Institute for Public Policy Research. Available at: https://www.ippr.org/files/2017-09/1504645674_not-by-degrees-170905.pdf (Accessed: 28 January 2021).
UCL (2020) BAME Awarding Gap Project Staff Toolkit 2020. University College London. Available at: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/teaching-learning/sites/teaching-learning/files/bame_awarding_gap_toolkit_2020.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2fGdk8h2M5qDgx56IicxoXDJqqhwBGdPT_XcyGUiNinwEvIfKQvFsDsSQ (Accessed: 28 January 2021).
We still need to talk (2013) We still need to talk: a report on access to talking therapies. Mind. Available at: https://www.mind.org.uk/media-a/4248/we-still-need-to-talk_report.pdf (Accessed: 2 February 2021).