Mandi Barron, AMOSSHE Executive Member, Head of Student Services at Bournemouth University, and LFHE Fellow
This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week focuses on stress, a key factor in mental health problems. We know that big life changes can cause stress, and starting university would certainly fall into that category. When you consider the other pressures that students face – learning to live independently, exam deadlines, changing friendship groups and dynamics, for example – it’s no wonder that reports of stress in the student community are high.
Members of AMOSSHE, The Student Services Organisation are used to supporting students with stress through counselling and wellbeing services. However, more recently our focus has shifted to prevention wherever possible.
‘Resilience’ is perhaps an overused word, and hated by some, but there’s no denying that there are steps we can all take to help us deal better with stress, and in some cases prevent more serious mental and physical health problems. Working with Unite Students, AMOSSHE has developed a Resilience Toolkit of useful resources for Student Services to use, both within and outside the curriculum, to help students (and staff) develop resilience to stress, anxiety and similar barriers to achievement and success.
Residential Life programmes, almost unheard of in the UK until fairly recently, are also becoming the norm, and have helpfully focused the role of accommodation providers (whether higher education providers themselves or independent operators) from being solely about bricks and mortar to having much more of a role in student welfare and support. AMOSSHE’s Insight funding programme is currently supporting four universities to develop initiatives related to promoting student resilience in a welfare setting. Amongst those is my own organisation, Bournemouth University, who are working with Mind to develop their resilience toolkit for a student audience.
I personally believe that we need to set expectations of university life right from the outset, so that students can start to prepare themselves for the demands of study even before they apply. Many students experience a ‘cliff edge’ when the fun of arrivals activities has worn off and the reality of living independently sets in. To try to address this, AMOSSHE is working with UCAS to enhance the information they provide on their website so that students can consider these challenges much earlier, and also to provoke conversation with parents, teachers and careers advisors about the reality of university life.
This may all sound rather negative, but many AMOSSHE members are also responsible for delivering some of the lighter services that promote mental wellbeing and can help combat stress from the outset. Sports, arts and music are all great in this respect, and we are seeing a number of initiatives where higher education providers are setting up referral routes between these and student wellbeing departments. A number of projects and initiatives will be showcased by our members at our summer conference, Shaping Futures.
And a final thought is about how we ensure that our staff don’t feel stressed when supporting students who may have challenging personal situations. This can be particularly challenging for academic colleagues who may not have experienced this type of support need before. When I spoke at the UCEA Health & Wellbeing conference last May, with an audience of HR and OD professionals, it became clear that many higher education providers hadn’t considered the impact that staff wellbeing has on student wellbeing. It’s good to see that a number of new initiatives have sprung up in this area, not least the mental health toolkit created by AMOSSHE colleagues at the University of the Highlands and Islands, as part of an AMOSSHE Insight project.
As you can see from everything we’re doing to tackle the challenges students face, collaboration is key – so the AMOSSHE team is looking forward to continuing our working partnership with Advance HE.
AMOSSHE, The Student Services Organisation, is a professional membership association for leaders of Student Services in UK higher education. AMOSSHE informs and supports the leaders of Student Services in the UK, and represents, advocates for and promotes the student experience worldwide.