Earlier this year, Advance HE announced funding to six institutions for Small Development Projects (SDPs) focusing on mental health and wellbeing of students. With the projects well on the way, Helen Payne - Professor of Psychotherapy at the University of Hertfordshire – gives us insight into the Peer Mentoring Scheme at the university and the focus of the institution’s SDP.
An introduction to the Peer Mentoring Scheme
The Peer Mentoring Scheme was developed in the School of Education at the University of Hertfordshire, from an acknowledgement of the important role students play in supporting each other. Students are often likely to approach each other for help in thinking through issues and for emotional support in the first instance. However, sometimes friends can feel overwhelmed, being unsure of how to help, where they can obtain help, and worried about how, and who, to ask for advice in case it seems they are betraying their friend. Consequently, the scheme provides a short training for volunteer student mentors, followed by offering all first years the opportunity to select their mentee based on a profile provided by the mentor.
As part of its Small Development Projects, Advance HE has generously funded the making of a short eight-minute film, which shares stories from student mentees and mentors. Ethical approval was obtained from the university for the project. Student volunteers for the film included:
- A range of ethnicity, age, gender, programmes of study.
- Those who have struggled themselves with mental health concerns (disclosed on non-disclosed).
- Students whose first language is not English
- Mature students.
- First generation in their family to attend university.
Additionally, volunteer students on the project team assisted with the editing of footage and gathering the metrics for measuring impact of the film once distributed.
Volunteers came equally from mentees and mentors and from all undergraduate years and master’s students. Volunteers were interviewed with a pre-designed set of questions to elicit their experiences of the scheme. Interviews took up to one hour, sometimes responses needed to be repeated several times to ensure clarity of points to be made. The filmed footage was then reduced considerably to identify only the clips which reflected different responses, for example, of the perceived benefits, disadvantages, main message, for each question in turn. Two students volunteered for the research team to assist with the selection of clips and to collect metrics from the YouTube dissemination of the film. Consequently, the final version of the film provides a brief overview of students’ experiences of the scheme. It has a ‘call to action’ in which it offers viewers the opportunity to apply for a guidance document, which has been prepared to help colleagues in setting up a peer mentoring scheme in their university.
Highlights in the film include:
- The importance of mentors knowing the other support provision available for signposting their mentees for mental health concerns
- How students felt equipped for such a role and felt confident in supporting their peers, as well as how they understood the limitations of confidentiality.
For mentees it shows how peer mentoring can be an acceptable, accessible and informal opportunity for them to talk through any worries. It was also viewed as a two-way process, being non-hierarchical and beneficial both emotionally and academically.
Mental health is a key concern
Students with mental health concerns such as anxiety/social anxiety, depression and autism are increasingly entering higher education institutions. Mental health concerns can be made worse by feeling overwhelmed by excessive stress during periods of transition, exams, assessments, assignments etc. One mature undergraduate said they were excessively anxious about how they would fit in as she was starting at the university in her 50s. She explained that she had two daughters who both withdrew from universities due to mental health concerns. Another was an overseas student who did not speak English as their first language and who found the adaption to culture here an issue. He said he was in ‘good shape’ mentally but said the peer mentoring helped him to be in even better shape, indicating it can be a protective factor too. Research shows there can be more susceptibility to stress for students from overseas, from disadvantaged backgrounds and/or with mental health conditions. For these students, such vulnerabilities can lead to mental health difficulties or an exacerbation of a diagnosed condition when under excessive stress (and with such characteristics). It is clear from the stories reported in the interviews, students found talking things through with a peer was usually sufficiently supportive, enabling mentees to cope better with any stress, and/or acknowledging the mentor can support them to seek more professional help.
Student mentees thought it was a good idea they could select their own mentor, opting-in or out of meetings as and when they needed. The message from mentees and mentors was all about peer mentoring as being a positive advantage to improve grades for mentees rather than based on a deficit model. They all encouraged their universities to make such schemes available to their students.
Peer mentoring as a two-way process
Peer mentors understood they are not counsellors but still can offer support to students new to the university to settle in, especially important at such a time of transition so they feel that they belong. Mentors thought offering listening, understanding, signposting to other support and helping to cultivate a positive learning relationship created a mutuality and sense of belonging, it was thought, whereby mentors and mentees could grow and succeed together in a ‘two-way process’. Mentors were aware they can develop transferable skills such as self-management, leadership and communication as well as gain personal satisfaction in ‘giving something back’. One student volunteer spoke about her experience as a mentee motivating her to become a mentor in her third year.
According to these stories, the relationship between mentor and mentee was unique and although several reported that both were nervous prior to that first face-to-face meeting, they soon settled into the peer mentoring meetings. According to the participants’ responses, outcomes appear to have been academic, personal, professional and social.
The full outcomes of this project and the short eight-minute film will be available later in the year. This project will also be featured at the University of Hertfordshire’s Annual Learning and Teaching Conference, which takes place on 7 June 2019 with the theme of ‘Student-Staff Partnerships. If you have any queries about this project, please email Professor Helen Payne on H.L.Payne@herts.ac.uk. You can also follow the Small Development Project page for updates on all SDP funded work.