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.

Building strong communities

Our work to improve the sense of community for our students here at Bristol has started, and initiatives like the Bristol SU Living Room are helping students connect with one another. However, our students have told us that there is still more to be done.  

Over the next two years, we plan to build on our strong platform of student-centred services by aligning many of the routes to support together under one roof. Given the centrality of Senate House, and the ongoing refurbishments that have already seen the building transformed into an easily accessible and all-inclusive hub for student activity, the plan is to bring even more services into the building. 

Already the home of the Study Centre, the largest Bristol SU Living Room, the PGR hub (for postgraduate research students) and a student café, Senate House is steadily undergoing further changes as it becomes the centre of Campus Heart.    

As well as revamping the ground floor to include a one-stop information point for all students, we hope this will become a fully integrated space that offers students access to all they need; from help and advice about fees and funding to a suite of wellbeing services. There will also be additional SU space for students to use for work or relaxation. 

Our Student Wellbeing Service and Residential Life teams are already expanding, with positive results that have seen a reduction in waiting times for counselling support and a more seamless approach to early interventions, in addition to professional support available round the clock, every day of the year.  We’re building on this success to ensure that our students can continue to access the high quality support they need. This includes working in partnership with Bristol Students’ Union, Sports Exercise and Health and academic colleagues to provide a range of activities to help build strong communities across our university.  

Find out more as we chat to Ros Elliott, Head of Student Residential Life.

Further information about what we’re doing to transform our campus including all the latest developments at Senate House, can be seen on our latest film (January 2020).  

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

A calming space to simply be : The Bristol SU Living Room

“..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. 

Students sitting at tables
Photo: Bristol Students’ Union 2019

 “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 sitting and laughing
Photo: Bristol Students’ Union 2019

 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!” 

Facing facts 

  • 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. 

Useful links

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.

Find Your Potential

Six top tips for study success

You did it! You got your place! And right now, you’re probably packing and thinking about what you’ll need to start student life in Bristol next week. You might be wondering about what life at university will be like; whether you’ll need one saucepan or four; thinking about who you’ll meet and which societies to get involved in.

With so much to think about, studying may not be right at the top of your list right now! But do read this later for top tips to help you build great study skills to keep on top of academic life right from the start.

 

Tip 1: Get to know your personal tutor

Your personal tutor – everyone has one— will help you to get the most out of your time here at Bristol. They provide feedback on your work and general info about your course, advise on study skills and choosing options, and help with personal development planning. Importantly, if you are struggling with financial, health or other problems, they can also signpost you to our support services to get the help you need.

At the moment, we’re also looking for new 1st year undergraduate students to help us develop personal tutoring further – Visit our website to find out more.  

Tip 2: Start your Personal Development Plan early

Personal Development Planning (PDP) helps you reflect on your skills, attributes and achievements, and plan for your future personal, academic and career development.  As part of this, you should create a PDP portfolio to record your progress as you move through your degree. Your personal tutor will help you with this. Find out more on the PDP tab and check out our Bristol Skills Framework to get started.

Tip 3: Expand your horizons with our Optional/Open Units

Some of our degree programmes are flexible so you can choose from a range of optional/open units and explore topics outside your discipline. Bristol Futures Optional Units will help you develop new perspectives studying themes such as global citizenship, big data, innovation, and sustainability. Alternatively hone your language skills with our University-Wide Language Programmes – and if your degree doesn’t allow you to choose these units (check with your School office), you can always follow one of our Bristol Futures open online courses, starting 19 October 2019. You can apply for your open/optional units via the Online Open Unit Selection form during Welcome Week (open from 9 am, 23 September to 12 pm, 25 September). Visit our website to find out more.

Tip 4: Study Skills for you

Studying at University may feel a bit daunting at first, but make use of our Study Skills Service, offering workshops, online training and other useful resources. In particular, check out our Upgrade to University course to develop a suite of study skills to help you through your degree.

Tip 5. Represent your Students’ Union

As well as getting to grips with studying at University, you could also think about becoming a student representative for the SU, responsible for raising academic concerns for students. First year course reps, Junior Common Room (JCR) reps, the Postgraduate Network Chair and committee members are among the opportunities up for grabs. Find out more on the SU website.

Tip 6: Follow the Library on social media

Checking up on the collections!

Following the Library Twitter feed is a must! A super useful  source of information about where to study, it’s a great way of getting to know our many libraries and study spaces, with options for group and individual study, and where to find chill out zones for those all-important breaks. It provides interesting facts about our collections, our knowledgeable and dedicated library staff… and some of our special custodians. (Reader, I draw your attention to Mort the resident skeleton in the Medical Library). It’s also worth checking out the Library’s other social channels: Facebook and Instagram to keep in touch.  And read the Library’s special welcome to new students.

That’s it from us for now! In the meantime….happy packing! See you in Bristol!

One of our former students has written you a welcome letter – look out for this on our Freshers’ 2019 Facebook group later this week!

Celebrating 10 years of the Green Impact Awards

We’ve recently celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the Green Impact Awards, a University of Bristol-born environmental initiative, which has gone on to have national impact. It has been adopted by over 400 UK organisations such as University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust, North Bristol NHS Trust and 50 universities across the country.

Green Impact Award winners 2018

The Green Impact Scheme challenges staff to implement several actions within their departments to help the environment: things like saving energy, volunteering, using more sustainable transport and recycling. The more actions teams complete, the more points are scored, leading to a Bronze, Bronze Plus, Silver, Gold or Platinum Award. Students can volunteer as Green Impact Project Assistants or Green Impact Auditors.

  • Green Impact Project Assistants: students receive certified NUS training and then use their new skills to help Green Impact teams complete their workbooks by improving the sustainability of their workplaces. This usually begins shortly after the launch of the scheme, and ends just before it closes. Green Impact Project Assistants provide ongoing assistance to teams during this period.
  • Green Impact Auditors: students receive certified NUS training to carry out the official end-of-scheme audits of Green Impact teams and their workplaces to make sure teams have completed all actions logged in their submitted workbooks. Training and audits usually take place in one day following the close of the scheme.

“The Green Impact Awards are a fantastic testament to how the efforts of individuals and teams can combine to achieve instrumental positive effects on our environment. We’re immensely proud to have created a scheme that has gone on to be adopted across the country and of all of our staff and students whose work has contributed positively on our environment.”

Martin Wiles, University of Bristol Head of Sustainability.

For 2019, the Sustainability Team are busy planning how the Green Impact Awards will work alongside other sustainability schemes at the University. Keep an eye on the Green University pages for further updates.

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