Mentally Healthy Universities: Shifting culture through community and conversation

What does it mean to be mentally healthy? What are the early triggers and warning signs of stress and anxiety? How can we support ourselves and each other as we navigate some of life’s toughest challenges?

These are some of the questions that students and staff at the University of Bristol are being encouraged to explore with the expert guidance of trained mental health specialists from the leading UK charity, Mind.

Bristol is one of six universities taking part in a two-year pilot programme of workshops and courses that take a proactive approach to transforming the way in which mental health is understood, talked about and responded to in student communities and staff spaces.

The programme – Mentally Healthy Universities – has been developed in response to growing evidence about the mental health challenges faced by the UK’s higher education sector. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the number of students who disclosed a mental health condition almost doubled between 2012 and 2015 to nearly 45,000.

The Mind programme of courses, designed with the input of students from Leeds and Oxford University where the initiative began, seek to open up the conversation around mental health in such a way that encourages both students and staff to empower themselves and each other to seek support.

Claire Slater, Deputy Director of Student Services at the University of Bristol, said: “We are really pleased to be taking the lead in tackling this issue in a proactive way. The conversation around mental health is already underway but more does need to be done as unfortunately, stigmatisation and misunderstanding remains a barrier.

“To work with renowned specialists like Mind is a significant step towards eroding those barriers and enhancing the package of support that Bristol offers to students and staff.”

 

Help yourself, help others

Mental health trainers from Mind have already started to deliver three courses under the programme, which will initially run until April 2020. The courses are aimed at students in their first and final years, two of the primary crunch points when the transition into university and away from home, and then out of university and into the workplace, is known to impact mental health.

As well as equipping students with greater knowledge about what constitutes mental health and how to manage their state of mind, the courses are an opportunity for students to share their thoughts, concerns and experiences with each other, and with trained specialists.

Charlotte Randomly, Mentally Healthy Universities Project Coordinator for Bristol Mind, said: “The programme is part of a puzzle that universities like Bristol are trying to figure out by adopting a practical approach to developing mental health awareness as part of a wider cultural shift.”

“We know that mental health is a personal issue, in that it’s felt at the individual level. But we also know that it’s a social concern – the challenges that we face shape and are shaped by the contributions that society makes to our mental health. That’s why with these courses, our focus has been to shift the conversation towards a more community-centred approach.

Student involvement has been key to the whole process of designing and delivering the programme. Those who participate will also be involved in evaluating the pilot later this year. Their feedback will shape how Mind, Bristol and other partners evolve the course.

Champions of collective wellbeing

Running in tandem with the Mind programme is Bristol’s internal drive to empower staff role models within their workspaces. Staff with lived experiences of mental health are being encouraged to apply their insights as Mental Health Champions, facilitating conversations and events aimed at supporting their colleagues.

“We all have a role to play in this conversation,” adds Claire. “This is an opportunity for all of us, staff and students, to make a valuable contribution to the ongoing effort to shift perceptions of mental health and to develop a really strong and supportive community culture.”

Investing in the future

The Mind programme of workshops, coupled with the Mental Health Champions initiative, are part of the University’s ongoing commitment to supporting the mental health of its entire community. Plans are also in development to create more online resources for students, while for staff, the Careers Service is hosting a series of Workplace Wellbeing courses similar to those offered to students.

The overarching student Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy further helps to capture and expand the work already underway, ensuring that mental health awareness and support remains a priority.

Student Volunteering Week 2020 and the 5 Ways to Wellbeing

Student Volunteering Week is a national event, with Higher and Further Education Institutions across the country using the week to celebrate existing student volunteers, and to encourage more students to start volunteering. Student Volunteering Week 2020 takes place from Monday 10 to Friday 14 February.

This year Bristol SU, Bristol Hub and the Engagement Opportunities team are working together to theme the week around the 5 Ways to Wellbeing, a concept developed and promoted by Mind. We’ve chosen this theme as volunteering is proven to improve mental health (Time well spent survey, 2019).

But you don’t have to take our word for it. We’ve asked Bristol SU Volunteering President Jude d’Alesio about how volunteering has helped enhance his wellbeing, education and employability.

He’s chosen three of the Ways to Wellbeing to focus upon:

Connect

In my final two years of secondary school I volunteered weekly at my local care home, listening to the experiences of residents completely different to mine. In Clifton there are four care homes, all in need of volunteers, and I would encourage anyone with an hour to spare to visit these places as the communication, leadership and empathy skills you develop will be useful in whichever field you decide to work in. From my volunteering experiences there is truly no feeling comparable to the satisfaction gained from helping others.

Give

Giving can take many forms, but in a volunteering sense, I see giving as participating in social and community life. Since arriving at Bristol, I have served on the governing body of a local school, advising the headteacher on ways to improve teaching standards, the curriculum and child safeguarding. This is a highly rewarding volunteering project and given that only 1% of school governors are under 25, many schools are eager for a fresh and youthful contribution.

Be active

I cannot stress the importance of keeping physically fit; it really is true that a healthy body helps make a healthy mind. Exercise stimulates the brain to release endorphins which create a sense of enjoyment and improve mental wellbeing. There is a plethora of physical activities available through the university, simply look at the sporting societies on the SU website for inspiration.

In addition, a considerable proportion of volunteering in the community involves getting outdoors and using your body, especially as spring approaches. These opportunities are an excellent chance to discover the city’s beautiful open spaces, meet people who help to maintain them and take a healthy break from your studies. For something more regular, Roots Community Gardening are a student-led project that meet weekly in locations around Bristol to preserve these precious and often overlooked areas.

To find out more about Student Volunteering Week and the events and opportunities available, visit the Student Volunteering Week webpage. You can also find lots of great volunteering opportunities to get involved with through the Bristol SU, Bristol Hub and by searching for opportunities on myopportunities.

 

For more information about volunteering please visit: www.bristol.ac.uk/student-volunteering

 

 

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