Health check on the campus experience

Jan Capper, chief executive at CUBO, discusses how peer-to-peer support can bring positive benefits to student mental wellbeing

As the first excitement abates, most freshers find themselves away from home, embarking on a new, independent university life. And commuter students have their own pressures, as they can feel excluded from the full campus experience.

When it comes to student wellbeing and mental health, universities are under ever greater media and public scrutiny. Legally adult they may be, but most students are very much emerging adults, and the expectation is that universities should do more to safeguard the most vulnerable among them.

Under pressure

There has been considerable investment in campus facilities, amid growing competition, financial pressure and student expectations. The higher education sector is under pressure to deliver not only academic results, but an all-round, holistic, student-centered focus that includes social experiences and non-academic learning, as well as emotional support – and to provide all this at a cost that is ‘value for money’. It’s a tall order, driven by the perception of students and their parents that current fees warrant this level of service.

Of course, no university wants its students to feel isolated, to disengage or struggle alone with mental health issues. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma to overcome: the message of Jonny Benjamin, mental health campaigner and speaker at the 2019 CUBO Residence Life Conference, that “It’s OK not to be OK,” is not heard enough.

The latest insights report from Unite Students and HEPI, The New Realists, backs previous findings that struggling students turn first to their peers. In contrast to our physical health, as a nation we’re still reluctant to seek professional help for our mental wellbeing. So, universities need to tap into that preference for peer support.

While student mental wellbeing is, and should be, an end in itself, some 20 years of data from the USA indicates that positive campus experiences improve retention and academic outcomes, too. The US concept of residence life – the comprehensive programme that surrounds the experience of living on and off campus – has taken root in the UK and Ireland and presents a positive and practical way forward for all universities.

Residence life programmes provide that all-important peer support, plus a programme of non-academic activities, both social and practical (for example, money management and cooking), which can resolve some of the anxiety that might otherwise escalate. Crucially, they help to develop stronger student communities on campus and off.

Residence life teams comprise university staff overseeing students who work or volunteer as residence assistants, whose training includes mental health first aid – the ability to identify and manage a situation and guide a fellow student to the right professional support.

In 2018, CUBO introduced a Residence Life Award with the aim of promoting best practice in this vital area of service. As an example, in 2019 Cardiff Metropolitan University’s entry focused on young men, who are more likely to commit suicide and less likely to seek help. The entry depicted a barber’s chair where they could share concerns while having a haircut.

Social inclusion

Moving out of halls can bring renewed isolation and financial stress, while anxiety over studies and the future often build during a degree. The National Union of Students’ (NUS) first Student Experience Report highlighted how different forms of social inclusion play a major role in student wellbeing. Students’ networks, course ‘buddies’ and relationships with tutors are extremely valuable to all students.

A socially inclusive campus should be a priority for all universities alongside a robust residence life programme. This means facilitating autonomous learning and social experiences out of timetabled hours – on campus, in cafés, library areas and other impromptu social spaces.

The NUS report shows how highly students value time with their peers. When asked “What motivates you to learn?”, the second most popular response was “Collaborating with other students,”
(57%). The report finds that social areas such as bars and meeting areas are the most frequently-used services.

If there is one pause for thought, it’s comments in the report that the convenience of cafés, restaurants and bars can lead to overspending, particularly for those living further from campus. Areas within the university that are comfortable but don’t encourage spending would serve commuter students, too – a group that choose to live at home largely for financial reasons.

There’s much we can do to support the wellbeing of all students through our campus services. But it would be unrealistic to imagine we can take on mental health issues alone. The aim should be to work with the NHS locally and nationally to ensure that students are aware of, and can access, the care they need.

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