What next? Supporting student mental health through the summer

14 May 2021
By Jennifer Steadman, Higher Education Communications Executive at Unite Students
Our Mental Health Awareness Week coverage is drawing to a close, which leaves us to ponder - what next? Mental health and wellbeing are evergreen concerns, and we’re proud to regularly cover these topics, as well as providing the students who live with us a robust, joined-up approach to mental health all year round.

But our student surveys have highlighted the impact that the past year has had on many students, and we - along with so many of our partners and competitors - have had to step up to meet increased demand on welfare services. Ahead of the Monday 17 May return to campus in England and Scotland, we share how we’re helping students in addition to our usual service provision.

More trained mental health first aiders across our properties

Meditation, talking to friends and going for a walk can be good ways of sustaining positive wellbeing. But a student in crisis needs a more substantial helping hand. That’s why we’ve increased the number of staff trained as mental health first aiders across our cities, equipping them with the knowledge to recognise signs of poor mental health and signpost students to the services they need.

As Victoria mentioned in her article on supporting employee wellbeing, our employees have been encouraged to look after their mental health with wellbeing-focused one-to-ones, cultivating a culture of openness, as well as taking part in activities intended to boost wellbeing; within the organisation, we’ve created a wellbeing working group led by colleagues across the business. By renewing our own team’s focus on wellbeing for themselves, they’re able to better understand, empathise with, and respond to the needs of students who have struggled in the past year.

 

Supporting and promoting dedicated resources for students in the pandemic

Recognising the need for widely-available, Covid-specific resources, student mental health charity Student Minds set up the website Student Space in August 2020. 

The platform works to support students in three ways: 

  • Access to dedicated support services including text, phone, email and webchat
  • Information, tools and student stories on navigating life during the pandemic 
  • Help students find what support is available at their university through a university directory

These resources have recently been refreshed with an updated package of tailored services for groups that have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, providing additional support. These groups include Black, Punjabi and Muslim students, trans and gender-questioning students, students from working-class backgrounds, and students with mental health difficulties such as OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), BDD (body dysmorphic disorder) and sensory experiences.

Unite Students is a Student Space Comms Champion, supporting this excellent set of resources by sharing communications with the students who live with us to direct them to it, empowering students in these groups to find and access services tailored to their specific needs and concerns.

Our student-facing website, The Common Room, has also published regular content throughout the pandemic regarding mental health and wellbeing, including helpful tips and signposting.

Putting on a Spring Festival to make the final term memorable

In our February student survey, 77% of students said they had struggled with their mental health, while 56% had struggled to make friends. Yet 84% said that engaging in university life had been a benefit to their mental health.

Enter our Spring Festival. From 18th April to 15th May, we’ve run a month-long festival of virtual events to help students get involved in university life as much as possible and create good memories in their final term of the year. The festival programme has included motivational speakers, quizzes, live streams from major musicians, cooking tutorials, and film nights, where students can participate in live chats through our uChat app.

As well as lighter entertainment, Mondays have been host to a series of wellbeing webinars, where we’ve offered students the opportunity to hear from chaplains, student ambassadors, Student Minds and recent graduates, offering advice, wellbeing tips and signposting. We recently shared the reflections of student ambassadors Alex and Brian on how they’d supported students throughout the pandemic and the benefits to their own wellbeing.

Additionally, with exams coming up and accommodation currently playing an expanded role in students’ study experience, two sessions a week are given over to providing students with academic assistance from ILS International, both on study strategies and exam preparation. This is an extension of our study webinar programme, which we’re delighted to share has been rolled out nationally after a successful pilot - you can read more about this here.

 

Comprehensive safety measures to give students peace of mind about their health

Health has been a source of anxiety for many of us in the past year, and so it’s crucial to minimise students’ fears around this. We have responded to Covid health and safety concerns throughout the past year, and regularly updated our measures throughout the year. We recognise that visual signifiers of precaution are effective in helping students to feel safe, such as staff wearing PPE for cleaning and room inspections, compulsory face mask wearing in communal areas, and social distancing signage around our properties.

We provided a comprehensive list of measures we’ve taken in January, while our most recent updates came in April - you can find them here, ahead of the return to campus. 

 

Even as we edge closer to the next normal, the summer will undoubtedly bring new challenges for students’ mental health. But whatever challenges are up ahead, we’re ready to help students in a variety of creative and practical ways.

 

If you’ve found our Mental Health Awareness Week content to be valuable, please do share with your colleagues and teams - head here to find all our content from this week. 

If you need support, don't suffer in silence. The Mental Health Foundation has a list of resources and suggestions available here.

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Jen Steadman (she/her) is a Higher Education Communications Executive at Unite Students. Prior to this, she was the inaugural Editor of GSL News, covering the student experience for the higher education sector.