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Reaching out to students: a proactive approach to wellbeing at NUA

As part of the Advance HE Small Development Projects 2019 focusing on the metal health and wellbeing of students, Norwich University of the Arts (NUA) developed a series of animations to encourage the student community to seek help with mental health and wellbeing issues. Sarah Steed, Director of Innovation and Engagement, details the project below.

This project was to create a series of animations to support the work undertaken by the Student Support team at NUA in reaching out to our student community proactively to encourage them to seek help with mental health and wellbeing issues. NUA has already seen significant improvements by proactively engaging with students – so this was a natural next step.



In 2017/18, NUA took the decision to adopt different ways of engaging with students on wellbeing issues. This decision was taken in part because of the rise in numbers of students experiencing problems, but also because students who feel vulnerable or need support often ask the academic teams for help, particularly if the prospect of seeking out a new team they do not know is too daunting. We wanted to make sure that the support we offer is visible, available and that students talk to us before they reach crisis point.

Our new approach was for our Student Support team to become more accessible, through social media, ‘drop-ins’ at different times of day, and the physical campus. We specifically recruited two new Student Support Advisers, who regularly work from campus locations already known to students through their academic studies. Our research has indicated that this new, engaging approach has significantly changed the number and tone of the interactions with our student community, as well as removing a potential source of stress for academic colleagues, for whom pastoral care was increasingly becoming difficult to manage.

Specifically, we can evidence that:

  • Between 2016/17 and 2017/18, the number of 1:1 appointments we held on welfare, wellbeing or academic issues increased by 78% after we adopted the new engagement strategy. The number of individual students accessing Student Support increased by 53% in this period and has gone up by a further 17% during 2018-19 (to date).  We can assume that the greater the number of students accessing support for welfare or wellbeing issues results in our increased ability to help students avoid health and wellbeing crises.
  • Attendance levels at our evening drop-in sessions have been comparable with those at our traditional daytime drop-in sessions.
  • We have evidence of a small but growing engagement with us via Instagram.

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Despite the very significant rise in students who need mental health and wellbeing support, our rate of intermission remains very low, at 1.5%, which indicates that by working with students proactively to have earlier conversations, we are indeed preventing most situations from reaching crisis point

In this project, we developed a digital animation campaign to support this activity, using a character called ‘Blue’. Blue is appealing, approachable and non-gender specific. The three films made so far dramatise the triggers for wellbeing issues and show Blue experiencing a range of non-verbal phenomena, which are metaphors for the feelings we all experience when we are starting to be unwell. In each instance, Blue is able to access help through the Student Support team who help them feel OK again, as their body returns to normal.

The animations were created for our campaign by an early stage animation team who graduated from our MA programme in 2018. They have been disseminated through social media (primarily Instagram), our intranet, and on the digital screens in the foyer of each of our building.  Each of the animations has a call to action that clearly shows the student how they can access help.

Key Learnings and Challenges

In the research phase of our project, we discovered the key trigger points for students who experience poor mental health and the value in early stage intervention. They were:

• Worrying about money
• Alcohol and drugs – misuse and pressure to participate
• Social interaction, either through loneliness or isolation, particularly where students are not grouped together in student accommodation, or when social interaction becomes unhappy or intense
• Course work – particularly if it is not going well or deadlines are looming. It is often a particular issue for our students that their creative practice, which used to be their ‘release valve’ can in itself become a source of stress.

We asked students where they would turn for help and whether the student support services we offer were immediately visible. Although some of them were aware that there were members of the support team available in student areas, many still were unaware. We decided as a result to use our final animations on the screens we have placed in the foyer of all student buildings, and to make them in a format to share through Instagram, with direct links through to book appointments.

One factor we did not anticipate was the extent to which students worry about each other’s wellbeing. It is common for them to be concerned about the behaviour of other students, particularly if they do not know how to judge the severity of the other person’s anxiety, or, again, how to access help. Although the students we spoke to are very aware of the issues around wellbeing, and had directly or indirectly experienced anxiety and depression they found the responsibility of concern for someone else’s mental health was a heavy burden – particularly when judging ‘what’s normal?’ This is a key additional message in the Blue campaign, and we are careful not to ‘name’ specific conditions, as we know this can be a barrier to referral.

We discovered through the project the importance of situating our message in commonly used digital formats. For our students, their world lives in their phone – so we need to live there too to be effective.

Finally, students told us that they did not want the campaign to be branded NUA, or even to adopt our corporate colours. This is because we can sometimes be part of the problem, so should not try to position ourselves as the only solution.

Engagement, communication and impact

This project has been developed with full engagement from the Students’ Union (NUASU), both in the research stage and also through the development of the creative campaign. Student representatives have also been involved in planning the next steps of the Blue campaign beyond this project funding.

Student input has informed the dissemination choices of these films which will play on the screens in the foyers of our buildings, on our intranet and across social media.

We have used the Blue campaign to open a discussion with prominent regional businesses about how they support the wellbeing of their staff and the ways that we can support them in the future.

Next steps and dissemination

Our immediate first step is to disseminate the campaign through the channels we have set out, and then to monitor their effect on student appointment data.

As a progression for the Blue campaign, NUA has approached a number of funders to develop the campaign further into low-fi hip-hop and ASMR videos, both of which are extensively used by our student body already as stress management tools and which could be effective vehicles for student engagement.