Dan Baker: Putting student mental health at the heart of the home

Dan Baker, general manager at Student.com, discusses how university accommodation can foster wellbeing from the ground up

According to research from Student.com, 70% of students have felt lonely while at university, and, unfortunately, student wellbeing has been one of the most talked-about topics in the higher education industry during 2019. As a headline-hitting topic, student wellbeing is a high on the priority list of student accommodation providers, higher education institutions and local services in university cities.

Living the student life

With over 2.3 million students studying in the UK, and the additional thousands of students studying abroad, the world has never been more accessible to young people looking to embark on higher education courses. Over the past two decades, the whole higher education landscape has changed dramatically, and with that comes a new set of challenges as more students than ever before head to university.

Often for young people, university is the first time they have moved away from home – some living in the same town for their whole life beforehand. It’s easy to forget what that first experience of living away from home was like – or nostalgia removing some of the more challenging elements. Add to the mix potentially understanding a whole new country, getting to grips with a new language and culture, and you can see how the university experience can be daunting.

Home away from home

By way of human nature, we all need a stable home environment to flourish, and that doesn’t change while at university. Due to increasing costs of tuition fees and changes in student loans, this pushes students to get the most out of their higher education experience: from finding the perfect university for them, to enrolling on the ideal course to enable them to graduate with their dream career prospects, to ensure that where they are staying while at university provides the right environment for them.

The range of student accommodation has increased. With now more options than ever before – from rooftop views, gyms, study areas and even karaoke rooms becoming the standard – it means that students are more likely to find the right fit for them.

Alongside this there is an increased focus on the support teams in student accommodation. Research from Student.com shows that almost half (45%) of landlords and property managers have managed a situation of a student in distress. This has led to many student accommodation locations providing 24-hour support from a mental health trained member of the team, with drop-in sessions for students looking to access support when they feel they need it.

Proactive attitude

Moments of student mental health crisis are no longer a rare occurrence, as three-quarters of landlords and property managers have had to escalate a student wellbeing issue to another service, according to research from Student.com. Previously seen as siloed operations, the importance of a connected community – with universities, landlords and local health services – is essential.

With these groups being connected on messaging, support channels and communication, it helps provide the best service for students. Small factors such as displaying the same flyers in all locations where students need support, to larger activations such as hosting activity events tailored to specific passions – such as gaming night, book club or a fitness class – can improve engagement.

Shifting perspectives

It’s clear that with the focus on student mental health and wellbeing, the higher education industry is looking to support students during their journey. The shift is in changing mental health support from being aimed at managing students in moments of crisis, to regular positive mental health support. Taking on a daily approach to positive mental health empowers students to feel confident and able to manage the pressures of university life.

The positive of the mental health and wellbeing focus in the higher education sector is a drive in creative solutions to help foster a healthy environment for students to flourish. While, historically, the focus was on building the four walls that students live in at university – or the four walls of the university campus – this has now switched to the community and environment that those four walls encase.

As we head into 2020, the topic of student mental health will continue to be a high priority for higher education professionals.

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