Student accommodation and student mental health

How are universities and PBSA providers ensuring that students’ mental health and wellbeing is kept in mind when adapting and building new accommodation? And what support is available to students once they’ve moved in? Keri Beckingham finds out

Helping students to cope with mental health issues is something that universities have been criticised for in recent years. Although cases of students taking their own lives are rare (the Office for National Statistics estimates 4.7 deaths per 100,000 students), a number of tragic cases have come to light, forcing the sector to make a change.

In June 2019, the Office for Students announced that 10 UK universities had received national funding to try new approaches to mental health issues.

These included The University of Liverpool leading a project on how to work better with the NHS and The University of Bristol asking every student to give permission for their family to be contacted, showing that progress is starting to be made.

For many students, the prospect of leaving home for the first time, moving to a new town or city and having to make new friends can be stressful and daunting and, at the end of 2018, analysis by the BBC found that the number of students seeking mental health support at university had increased by more than 50% in five years.

We know that social interaction and fitness are key to happiness and we asked our architects to rid these buildings of isolation and division – Andrew Southern

Peace and quiet

As student accommodation is supposed to provide a safe, inclusive base for students to live, study and socialise, how are universities and purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) providers helping to make this transition easier and give students the support they may need?

According to a 2018 report by the NUS, one in five students now identifies as teetotal, which has seen a surge in demand for quieter halls of residence in the UK. As a result, student accommodation search engine has rolled out a Quieter Halls accreditation badge on qualifying student accommodation listings in order to accommodate a broader range of student lifestyles. Developed in collaboration with GP and student health and wellbeing expert Dr Dominique Thompson, the accreditation demonstrates provisions towards quieter living and includes noise policies, accommodation of specific requests for quiet rooms and living areas and a quiet surrounding area.

One of the first properties to display the badge is Student Castle accommodation in the heart of Edinburgh. Speaking about the launch of the Quieter Halls badge, founder and director Dan Roberts comments: “It’s so important that universities and accommodation providers are working to support every student, no matter what their lifestyle, to ensure that all students thrive.

“We’re proud that our Quieter Halls badge helps us take an important step towards giving students greater control over their experiences while at university.”

A Hythe Mills social space by Southern Grove

Thoughtful design

Future Generation, the PBSA arm of property developer Southern Grove, has just completed its first two PBSA schemes with a strong emphasis on mental wellbeing. Hythe Mills is a £25m, 229-bedroom student scheme in Colchester which boasts an interactive fitness studio, while Steel City in Sheffield is a £35m, 324-bedroom student scheme and features the signature Sky Lounge – a rooftop social space where students can relax, interact and enjoy cityscape views. 

Chairman Andrew Southern is passionate about thoughtful architecture and designing for mental welfare. He said: “Our architects focus on three main ingredients to make these the buildings the healthiest places to live – space, social interaction and exercise.

“Students shouldn’t be holed-up in their bedrooms for days on end. We know that social interaction and fitness are key to happiness and we asked our architects to rid these buildings of isolation and division. They’ve accomplished that and we’re extremely proud of the environments we have been able to create.”

Providing support

In July 2019, The British Property Federation (BPF) published a mental health and wellbeing guide for the student accommodation sector, which has been endorsed by the Department for Education. The Student Wellbeing in Purpose-Built Student Accommodation Guide was produced by a working group of representatives from across the PBSA and HE sectors, with expert insight from mental health and wellbeing charities. It notes that student accommodation can play an important role in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of students, and details best practice policies for supporting students in need.

PBSA provider Unite Students has three brand promises: to help get students settled; to keep them safe and secure; and to be there when they need support. Explaining how they support their students in more detail, Jenny Shaw, student experience director, says:

“In our accommodation we have a professional framework that allows our staff to identify signs of distress in students and then escalate their concerns. We work closely with universities, the police, the NHS and services such as the Samaritans to get students the right support to help them resolve and deal with whatever it is they’re facing.”

Max Guiton lived in Unite Students’ accommodation during his first year at university and believes that accommodation providers should do all they can to promote positive mental health to students.

Commenting on his experience, he says: “It was a hard first term trying to settle into this new environment and university life. However, there are some positives that came with living with Unite Students and most important to me were the friendly staff. It was nice to build up a rapport with them when I was struggling to make friends with those living in my flat. Just a simple smile and hello could raise my mood in the morning on my way to uni.

“I also remember this free yoga session Unite put on in the common room that I went to with a flatmate. That was a nice relaxing and social time that didn’t involve partying or alcohol and promoted mindfulness which helped me when I needed a lift.”

IconInc provides luxury student accommodation in Leeds, Liverpool and Lincoln city centres. Jodene Rogers, head of marketing, says that student wellness has always been of paramount importance to them, and at each site they are planning to train staff to become mental health first-aiders. Discussing further, Rogers comments: “Our team knows every student by their first name, which we feel is incredibly important for relationship building, and we also have a 24/7 service desk and support, so there is always somebody available to talk to.”

It’s so important that universities and accommodation providers are working to support every student, no matter what their lifestyle, to ensure that all students thrive – Dan Roberts

Forming friendships

Guy Gibson, deputy director and head of operation, Student Living at The University of Derby, explains that the university was one of the first in the UK to roll out a Residence Life (Res Life) programme to support students with the transition to university. A team of social reps deliver a diverse programme of events designed to get students out of their bedrooms and flats and make a wider friendship base, including trips to London, sports competitions and cheese and wine evenings.

Discussing the aim of the programme in more detail, he says: “If we can help these young adults to find lifelong friends and discover the support networks provided in that first year, they’re much more likely to last the duration of their course and come out the other side as more robust individuals.”

With regard to the university’s accommodation, Gibson also explains that like many institutions, much of their offering is older stock and they have therefore tried to develop their buildings in order to improve the wellbeing of their students.

He added: “Despite the exponential demand for shiny new en suite accommodation, the older accommodation, typically with shared bathroom facilities, drives people to develop closer friendships with their flatmates.

Of course, it’s not one-size-fits-all and while some embrace the situation, others can become even more introverted.

“However, for new and old halls alike, the shared kitchen, dining and lounge facilities offered by the typical student cluster flat encourages people out of their bedrooms to communicate with the people they’ll be spending a lot of time with.”

IconInc provides a 24/7 service desk and support

Listening to feedback

When designing their newest accommodation building, The Quads, The University of Bath developed its plans in consultation with staff and students to create accommodation that was innovative and high quality, while also giving the home-away-from-home feeling.

Built in 2014, The Quads consists of five buildings and houses 708 undergraduates in total. The communal spaces were developed following survey and focus group results, which revealed that large social spaces were a student priority and helped to improve their happiness. Each pair of flats shares a communal social space, which helps to build a community and create a sense of belonging, and all social spaces have large glass panels to encourage positive wellbeing as students are less likely to be isolated in their bedrooms.

In the university’s end-of-year survey for 2018/19, 69% of students felt they were part of a community in The Quads, with comments including: “It was easy to meet many people and have social gatherings, which really helped me settle into the uni in my nascent days as a student.”

The shared kitchen, dining and lounge facilities offered by the typical student cluster flat encourages people out of their bedrooms to communicate with the people they’ll be spending a lot of time with – Guy Gibson

Supporting a healthy lifestyle

A new 300-bedroom residential complex for students, arranged across 48 cluster apartments, is currently being built by Wates Construction for Teesside University. Cornell Quarter in Middlesbrough is expected to be completed in autumn 2020, with a value of £21m.

As part of the plans, emphasis has been placed on providing students with access to facilities that support a healthy, active lifestyle and the associated mental wellbeing benefits. Communal facilities include a gym and a break-out area on the ground floor with table tennis tables. A particular focus has also been given to prioritising pedestrian and cyclist access to the building with storage for 100 bicycles, noting the environmental and health benefits and the development’s town centre location.

David Wingfield, business unit director of Wates Construction Yorkshire & North East, comments: “Wates’ track record in building these schemes has been built upon our comprehensive understanding of our clients’ vision to create unique residences that enhance student experience and protect and preserve their mental wellbeing.”

What does the future hold?

It’s clear that universities and PBSA providers understand the responsibilities that they have in supporting students, and that progress is being made to make the transition to university life a lot easier. However, there is still more work to be done, and only time will tell whether the changes that are being implemented are really making a difference.

Unite Students

How Student Living by Sodexo are supporting their students

By Tom Martin, residency living manager

At Student Living by Sodexo, we place equal importance on mental health and physical health.

All our team is trained in mental health first aid, mental health awareness and some specialists are trained in Applied Suicide Intervention Skills (ASIS).

Building communities that care is at the very heart of residential living. We support students throughout their journey, from pre-arrival, arrival, living and departure, providing an environment that promotes positive health and wellbeing, and that nurtures a community.

We create a ‘home-from-home’ atmosphere where students can comfortably live and learn

Values and principles are key to providing safe, supportive and inclusive living-learning communities. Our residency living programme has been designed with Sodexo’s Quality of Life values and framework in mind and looks to develop, support and guide our residents from applicant to alumni. We create a ‘home-from-home’ atmosphere where students can comfortably live and learn.

We host ‘site nights’ where all our sites come together to join initiatives and programmes aimed at engaging students and staff. Activites include ‘speed friending’, salsa nights and our new ‘flat chats’, which involve our staff visiting to share insights about a specific topic such as sleep hygiene and making friends with the aim of boosting social connections.

Investing, caring and developing is our priority. We are proud to help shape students’ futures and ensure they have a blended community that allows them to grow as individuals and succeed in their studies.

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