Learning: Supporting students
Lydia Ellis, September 4, 2017
It is no secret that universities across the country face challenges when it comes to the mental health and wellbeing of their students.
With the cost of undertaking a three-year degree topping £27,000 in tuition fees alone coupled with the fear of not being able to find a job after graduation, students can be at risk of poor mental health if stress levels build.
While one in four adults is expected to suffer mental health difficulties in their lifetime, for students this figure triples: a survey of over 1000 students by the National Union of Students (NUS) in 2015 found that 78 per cent had experienced mental distress or difficulty within the past year.
Students in Bristol are unfortunately not exempt. During the 2016/17 academic year, Bristol made national headlines after six university students took their own lives in the space of nine months.
In the wake of such tragedies, Bristol’s two universities – the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) – have been investing more time and resources than ever in their mental health services.
“We are seeing increasing numbers of students coming through who struggle with the transition to university life, and also an increase in the number of students who have additional support needs, including mental health issues,” explains Mark Ames, director of student services at the University of Bristol.
“We’re aiming to engage students before they arrive, to help them understand that wellbeing is key: it impacts how we feel, and our ability to perform. We’re working with students right from the beginning, to help them think about their wellbeing and make them aware of services we offer, and we’re moving towards increasing our investment in terms of staff time.”
An investment of £1m will predominantly be used to fund the creation of a team of student wellbeing advisors. “They will be embedded within the academic schools, working alongside the academic staff and with students,” Ames explains. “They’ll support students to settle in and to build their own community. Hopefully, what students will experience as this new service is introduced is feeling better supported academically and in terms of their personal development.”
Recruitment of the 30 new wellbeing advisors will take place over the coming six months, support in place from spring 2018.
UWE Bristol is also planning to increase staff support, through residents’ assistants – fellow students who live in the halls of residence, helping incoming first year students to feel more at home, and who are trained to spot and to assist anyone who is struggling. This will be run in conjunction with a new Students’ Union scheme, HallsLife, which will bring residents together on campus through activities and shared interests.
“It’s about building a community on campus,” explains Professor Steve West, vice-chancellor of UWE Bristol and also chair of UUK Mental Health in Higher Education working group.
“The other new thing for us this academic year is a national project designed to establish best practice when it comes to mental health support – focussed on learning, and resources, and toolkits,” West continues. “I’m launching a national initiative focused on vice-chancellors and boards of executives with a set of recommendations and checklists.”
This will mirror UWE Bristol’s top-down approach: “What we’re trying to do is to connect up the university, with mental health and wellbeing right at the very top of the organisation, and make it a priority at a strategic level.”
Improving student counselling services is also a priority. An integral part of any university’s mental health programme, counselling is one of the most sought-after treatments for students suffering from mental health problems, and, as such, resources are often stretched, with long waiting times for appointments.
In order to minimise this wait, the University of Bristol are committing more resources to the student counselling service, which will include the introduction of a new Report & Support tool similar to that at the University of Manchester. The university will also continue to refer students to specialist agencies for support in relation to sexual assault and violence.
“As a university, we have to try and strike a balance in how best to use our own resources, and when to involve other experts,” Ames explains. “We’re one of the founding members of a forum against sexual violence and harassment, working with UWE Bristol, the police and specialist support agencies like The Bridge Foundation and SARSAS.”
UWE Bristol has been running a pioneering counselling scheme since the 2013/14 academic year. In addition to regular counselling services and an emergency counselling service for students who are in extremely acute need, UWE Bristol also offers a 90-minute initial counselling session, available to all students.
The scheme has proved so successful that the majority of students who attend the 90-minute consultation do not need immediate further counselling. “Students get immediate help when they need it, and that’s often enough to get them over that first hurdle,” says West.
One of the challenges of face-to-face counselling is its office-hours nature: mental health crises do not fit such a neat timetable. Both universities have turned to technology to help them counteract this. While not a direct substitute, online platforms can be useful for students who need an outlet to express themselves but cannot muster the strength to go in person to see a doctor.
Created in partnership with the psychology department at UWE, students who are feeling anxious are encouraged to download the free SAM app. Available at the touch of a button, it helps users to manage their own anxiety by keeping track of feelings and triggers, and by offering a toolkit for improving users’ resilience.
The University of Bristol also offers a virtual support service: Big White Wall. Established in the 2014/15 academic year, it provides users with support from peers and professionals around the clock, and also offers wellbeing tools that can help with self-managing their mental health. It has been used by more than 1300 students since its launch.
New for this academic year, peer listening service Nightline, which reopened at the University of Bristol in 2013, will cover students at UWE Bristol too. Students who want to talk confidentially to a trained listener can phone 01179 266 266 between 8am and 8pm during term time.
Both universities also have extenuating circumstance measures in place for students whose performance in an exam or a piece of coursework may be impeded due to mental health struggles.
Although controversial in its inception, UWE Bristol’s Fit to Sit policy, which allows students to self-declare whether or not they are fit to sit an exam, has been an overall success, receiving positive feedback from students.
In addition to its pre-existing extenuating circumstance form, the University of Bristol is also keen to offer further support for students who have suspended their studies. In trying to maintain contact with students who have temporarily left the university, the newly-created team of wellbeing advisors will be employed by the university to check in on students and see how they are doing.
Following a tough year for both universities, and their student bodies who were repeatedly shaken by the news of the student deaths, it is excellent that mental health is becoming a focus for investment.
“It is a complex issue, and when we have the tragedies of the kind that we’ve had, it has a personal impact on all of us,” says the University of Bristol’s Mark Ames. “I’m optimistic that from the very top of the organisation through to students, there is a huge level of concern and also a real kind of interest in looking into how we can help more people can manage their wellbeing.”
“When a student takes their own life, it’s a tragic end to what starts off to be a really hopeful future. It always leaves you asking what else you could have done,” says UWE’s Steve West. “We are working hard to try and spot when people are deteriorating and to intervene, but really, it would be great if universities could get to the point where we didn’t need to have the conversation.”
Read more: Students’ bid to fight mental health stigma