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.

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