“..the SU living room space has helped with community feeling and with their various wellbeing activities are a good way to relax and take breaks.”
Finding your place among a crowd of new people can be daunting, especially in the first few weeks of starting university, when many will have moved away from home and wish to feel they belong.
Enter the Bristol SU Living Room, a space opened in 2018 by Bristol SU designed to provide Bristol students with an inviting, sociable and open environment in which everyone, no matter their area of study or academic year, can simply be. It is the first university-based initiative of its kind in the UK, developed with the help of Camerados, a social movement driven by an overarching belief in the power of human connection.
There are now five SU Living Rooms across the University campus, including the original Bristol SU Living Room in Senate House, sandwiched between several floors of other student-led services, cafés and study areas – making access easy and visible to all.
“This is one of many positive changes at the University that take a student-centred approach,” says Hannah, President of the Peace of Mind Society, which holds weekly ‘Positivitea’ sessions in the Bristol SU Living Room, informal get togethers where students can share in fun activities and, if they wish, vocalise their experiences in a safe, supportive group comprised of their peers.
“A lot of people find that the ‘Positiviteas’ give them some structure, a routine where they know they have to be somewhere to do something for themselves and other people. It’s about students looking out for other students. This space has given us a platform to be able to do that, where money isn’t a constraint because teas, coffees and the space are free, which means wellbeing support is available to everyone.”
The word students most use to describe the Bristol SU Living Room is “calm”, thanks to a distinctly laid back vibe that offers plenty to do for those who want to get involved, and a soothing sanctuary for those who don’t.
Students now have a home from home in which to relax, socialise with friends, meet new people, switch mental gears with one of the many books that line the shelves, find some peace in the dedicated quiet space, or just decompress on the sofa with a warm drink in hand, accompanied by whatever is on one of the multiple TV screens.
In just one year, the initiative has already done much to counter the feelings of isolation and loneliness previously reported by students. More than 700 students visit the Bristol SU Living Room in Senate House every day.
“People can really struggle to know where to go in between studying,” says Sarah, a Masters student who completed her undergraduate degree at Bristol in the days before the Bristol SU Living Room. “I would go home a lot between lectures because I’d otherwise be easily distracted from studying. This space really makes a difference to students’ lives because they can spend time in an informal space whether to just hang out or relax, build relationships with other students or go along to one of the drop-in activities.”
“Love the SU living room in Senate- really great idea!”
- Data from research undertaken both within Bristol SU and the University of Bristol previously indicated high levels of isolation and poor work-life balance among Bristol students, with 35% of students saying they rarely or never feel relaxed. Almost 1 in 4 students said that feelings of isolation and exclusion caused them stress often or all the time.
- According to the University’s 2019 Mental Health and Wellbeing Survey, 22% of Bristol students say they often or always feel lonely – this compares to 8% in 16-24-year olds nationally including non-students.
- Since the Bristol SU Living Room opened in December 2018, 63% of the student body has been involved and more than 250 events attracting over 5,000 people held in the space.
- 91% of those who have participated in some of the social activities said it helped them meet new people, while 90% said the Bristol SU Living Room improved their sense of community, and a further 88% said it improved their sense of positive wellbeing.
The bigger picture
The lived experiences of people from all walks of life and every generation, coupled with a history of research on the subject, has shown that loneliness is detrimental to our mental and physical health. Community initiatives, befriending schemes led by charities and online groups are on the increase as society realises the importance of helping people to find their place among others.
The Bristol SU Living Room took its inspiration from one such initiative aimed at encouraging positive wellbeing. Camerados is a social movement with the strapline: “the answer to all our problems is each other”. Camerados sparked a wave of Public Living Rooms in community centres, libraries, colleges and hospitals nationwide, in a bid to create a “comfortable place where anyone can come, on good days and bad, to be around people, make connections and enjoy being out of the house”.
The organisation was instrumental in developing the Bristol SU Living Room, which has the potential to act as a model for similar Higher Education based initiatives elsewhere.
This case study is part of a series of stories sharing findings and student views from our Mental Health and Wellbeing Surveys 2018 and 2019. It’s a chance for us to share what we have done in response to what students have told us and to share what we’re planning to do. See our webpage for further information.