University Mental Health Charter must include role for accommodation providers

Nadine Lee, University Partnerships Director, Campus Living Villages, calls for collaborative working to tackle student mental health

As the new academic term gets under way, student mental health continues be high on the agenda for universities, the media and politicians. At the start of Freshers’ Week, Universities Minister Sam Gyimah MP, who has backed a Charter on student mental health which will be delivered in 2019/20, wrote to all UK university Vice-Chancellors urging them to prioritise wellbeing and mental health. But it is not just universities who need to act.

As an accommodation provider, we have witnessed first-hand the reality of students experiencing poor mental health. Our student residents ask members of staff at our Villages for help on a daily basis. This may be as a result of them struggling to cope with the step up to degree level academic studies; the pressure to make new friends; and perhaps the uncertainty of living away from home for the first time. Some of them are just looking for a friendly face and a chat, but others need directing towards more formal support services.

Research with The Student Room

We wanted to get a view of just how many students were having similar experiences to those our staff were seeing. To do this, we conducted research with The Student Room at the beginning of the year which revealed that, unfortunately, rates of poor mental health among students are much higher than those of the general population. Two-fifths of university students in the UK say they have poor mental health or have felt suicidal. This means that more than a million students could be struggling to cope.

As we begin to understand more about the pressures students face and the impact these can have on their wellbeing, we are looking for ways to increase the support we offer to our residents. Over the past year we have discussed at length with our university partners and charities how to work together to better identify students who might be experiencing poor mental health and signpost them to the services they need. A key finding from our discussions was that accommodation providers and external service providers, such as mental health charities, need to be working more collaboratively with universities to address this issue, or we risk students continuing to slip through the gaps. We can all do more to improve how we approach mental health, but it shouldn’t just be about universities, it should be about the whole sector – including accommodation and specialist support – working with university partners and the Government, to make a real difference in the lives of UK students.

At Campus Living Villages, we have created a Mental Wellbeing Strategic Group to ensure that mental health is a key focus for the business. Universities and accommodation providers regularly consider how building design impacts on students from an accessibility perspective and adapt for students with different physical disabilities, but we need to do more to consider how we can adapt environments to boost mental wellbeing too. The new Group will ensure that this issue remains central throughout our work, from designing our accommodation buildings to training staff, and we encourage others in the sector to do the same.