Rebecca O’Hare: how residential life helps mental health

Rebecca O’Hare from Campus Living Villages explains why the student accommodation sector can play a vital role in student wellbeing

University life brings with it the prospect of independence, intellectual discovery and the chance to build lifelong friendships. But there is evidence that such a big transition can have a serious impact on mental health for many new students.

In Campus Living Villages’ recent report on student mental health, Mental Health at University: Bridging the Gap, our research showed that as many as two in five students consider themselves to have poor mental health.

Much of the media coverage around the subject of student wellbeing has focused on what universities can do to spot the early signs of poor mental health and the support that they can provide. This, of course, makes sense.

However, students spend a great deal of time away from campuses in student accommodation.

The student accommodation sector, therefore, can play a vital role in student wellbeing.

It may sound strange at first to imagine an accommodation provider as a primary source of pastoral care, but accommodation staff across the country are already heavily involved in students’ lives – whether they are pointing residents to the right services, settling flatmate disputes or conducting welfare checks.

Through residential life programmes, providers are shaping the recruitment and training of accommodation staff to give students the best possible support in a crucial area of their lives: at home.

But at the heart of all residential life programmes lies a core idea: community.

At their core, residential life programmes are focused on improving the university experience for students outside the classroom. They offer a number of services aimed at improving student wellbeing. This often takes the form of group activities – from a BBQ to meet new flatmates, to spending an afternoon with guide dogs – designed to bring people together and create a sense community.

One of the most interesting things about residential life programmes is their responsiveness to different student demands – that they can be altered according to residents’ requirements in a range of settings and circumstances.

At Campus Living Villages we have provided programmes for our residents for the last ten years in the UK, which have changed and adapted in line with the changing needs of students. The development of our ‘Village Life’ scheme in 2015 has seen participation grow to 75% of residents in many cases.

But at the heart of all residential life programmes lies a core idea: community. This sense of community can be crucial for those struggling with the transition from living at home, to living in student accommodation.

This will mean universities will need residential life departments with fully trained staff

Given the beneficial impact residential life programmes can have on student wellbeing, a growing number of university accommodation professionals are becoming passionate about developing their own programmes. This is being matched by an increase in the types and number of roles on offer within the residential life space, as service providers seek to cater ever more directly to students’ needs.

Yet even this recent surge in interest could just be the very beginning of a much broader movement in student accommodation.

We expect that residential life programmes will become far more widespread, particularly as universities and policymakers continue to see the benefits that they have on students’ wellbeing.

This is, of course, fantastic news for those preparing to embark on the next stage of their lives at university. But this means that universities now have work to do.

From a practical point of view, universities will need to begin setting up residential life programmes tailored to their own infrastructure and students’ requirements.

This will mean universities will need residential life departments with fully trained staff. Although this may seem like a big commitment, it will surely help reduce the number of students with poor mental health who currently fall through the cracks.

Rebecca O’Hare is head of residence life and university relationships at Campus Living Villages

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