The OU and Big White Wall

Where do distance-learning students turn for mental health support? Discover the benefits of mental health initiative, the Big White Wall

Often students choosing to undertake distance-learning programmes can run the risk of feeling lonely or socially isolated – with nowhere to turn for support. Flexible learning environments require flexible support networks, and now students studying with The Open University can rely on mental health support from Big White Wall (BWW).

BWW is available to students at 42 institutions in the UK. The service offers students access to a 24/7 professionally peer-moderated support service and even grants students access to live 1:1 therapy sessions, seven days a week, from 7am–11pm. With distance-learning students mostly working remotely, it makes sense that all facets of their student experience are easily accessible online.

The service became available to Open University students on 1 October 2018 and has since seen over 700 registrations, 340 ‘brick posts’, and 18,500 page views.

So far, the work they have done with students is yielding great results: 78% of students who used the service said they felt better afterwards, while 68% said that using the service improved their overall student experience. In addition, 67% said they used the service to disclose an issue or feeling for the first time – at a time when it is believed one of the biggest causes of the student mental health crisis is the fact that 75% of students experiencing problems do not seek support.

Pat Atkins, Director of Student Support Policy & Operations at The Open University, comments: “In the last few years, the pressures on student mental health and wellbeing have been well documented within the conventional HE sector, in the media, in government initiatives and in sponsored research.

“At the OU, there appears to be a similar level of need among our students. One in three students declaring a disability to the university include mental health support needs, and staff in contact with students confirm there is a growing need for support in the areas of mental distress and wellbeing.”

“The Student Mental Health Working Group considered what kind of steps the OU could take to strengthen its mental health and wellbeing support for students,” he continues. “As a distance learning institution with students all across the UK and beyond, a conventional student wellbeing service could not meet our needs. The service needs to be available to our students wherever they are, whenever they are likely to need it – in particular, outside office hours and traditional term times.

“One area we explored was the possibility of an online mental health and wellbeing support service from commercial providers, some of whom also have significant presence in the conventional full-time sector. We considered the range of options currently available and established that Big White Wall is the best fit for our students at the moment, with a considerable number of clients already in the HE environment and with a level of accessibility and functionality that suited the needs of our students. The advantages of BWW for the OU include:

●  Support available 24-hours a day, all through the year

●  Students can tap into a large supportive community with a range of experiences

●  Students are able to interact through art/diagrams as well as text

●  A range of tried and tested guided support courses

●  Students can be signposted towards the service by non-mental-health support staff

●  The BWW has an external clinical quality accreditation

“Big White Wall offers us an efficient and effective means of offering mental health and wellbeing support to all our students and of clarifying both the level of demand among our students and the benefits of meeting that need.”

For more information on Big White Wall, please take a look at

Sarah O’Donnell, Senior Business Development Manager at Big White Wall, comments:
“We have a large number of university partnerships across the UK and are delighted to be working with The Open University to provide Big White Wall to their students. Our online delivery of mental health support complements The Open University extremely well.
“The OU student population is geographically dispersed and have a high digital literacy. The university does an excellent job of making all forms of support as accessible as possible and acknowledging the benefit of offering 24/7 online mental health support is another way they’re catering to their students’ needs.
“Analysing our usage data, we understand that 90% of student members log in outside the hours of 9am–5pm, emphasising the need for easily accessible mental health support at any time of the day or night. Providing our support service to Open University students who need support wherever and whenever they need and in a medium they are already using for their studies has proven to be exceptionally effective.
“Isolation while studying is a common experience for students at any university, and distance learning without campus life around them can heighten those feelings. Our online community, a large proportion of whom are studying, can provide the much-needed, ongoing
and consistent support and advice to cope with feeling low, stressed, anxious or depressed.
“Similarly, anonymity is a key driver in students opening up and talking about how they are feeling, reducing the impact of stigma. Our data has shown that 90% of our members cited anonymity as a key reason for using the service. Giving students a safe online space to talk anonymously means that those who normally wouldn’t disclose how they are feeling face-to-face, may feel more comfortable talking about their challenges with those who are going through the same experiences.”
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