According to the NUS, as many as 70% of students may experience homesickness at university. This is perhaps unsurprising when you consider that many students will be living away from home for the first time. When the excitement of Freshers’ Week subsides, reality sets in – budgeting and paying bills, shopping for and preparing meals, dealing with home security, and navigating an unfamiliar city, all with reduced access to the usual support network of family and friends back home.
The pressures associated with moving to university can test students with a pre-existing mental health condition, and may cause otherwise healthy individuals to become vulnerable; the rise in students accessing mental health services at university is well documented. Given the challenges posed by this transitional period, it is so important that student accommodation – a home from home – is just right. The student mental health charity Student Minds published a report earlier this year, highlighting the role of university and privately owned accommodation providers in creating an environment that enhances student wellbeing. Accommodation staff often witness student distress first-hand and need to be able to respond appropriately. The report encourages accommodation providers to develop wellbeing support for their student residents. We spoke to Rob Campbell (Health, Safety, Environment and Quality Manager) and Rebecca O’Hare (Resident Life Manager) from Campus Living Villages (CLV) to find out more about their work to ensure student wellbeing in the private accommodation sector.
Campus Living Villages
Established in 2003, CLV now house over 45,000 students throughout Australia, the UK, the United States and New Zealand. They already provide student residents with opportunities to socialise and make friends but in early 2016, CLV began reviewing these initiatives in light of increasing concerns for UK student wellbeing. Rob explains why this support is important:
“The student experience is quite literally a journey that takes students through a wide and varied range of emotions, both positive and negative. These range from feelings of isolation for students living outside of a family home for the first time and stress from the pressures of the course, through to social anxiety or any exacerbating or pre-existing issues.”
CLV’s first step in developing their approach to student wellbeing was to understand what mental health means to students, and CLV employees, and to raise awareness of this issue within the organisation. To this end, CLV partnered with Manchester-based young people’s mental health charity 42nd Street, who delivered training to office and Village staff. This was to raise awareness of student mental health, and to help staff identify warning signs and signpost students to the available support. 42nd Street also assisted CLV in conducting a review of their current processes for supporting the Village teams. Next, CLV worked with Rethink Mental Illness to establish Mental Health First Aiders in all Villages, further strengthening their support network for students.
Building upon a better understanding of the issue and the available support, CLV are now reviewing their policies and procedures in order to establish effective tools that can be used in all Villages. This is a significant, ongoing piece of work is currently the main focus of the project team, and Rebecca outlines how it has changed their perspective on student wellbeing:
“The biggest lesson learned to far is that Mental Health is not just about when people are struggling, it’s a whole lot more than mental illness. Promoting and maintaining positive mental health should undoubtedly be the focus of everyone’s efforts in as open and honest a way as possible, and as student accommodation providers we have a key role to play.”
CLV have decided against running events for events sake. Instead, they run workshops with their Village teams to keep staff informed of trends in the HE sector and the pressures faced by today’s students. This helps staff to understand the contemporary student experience, and plan initiatives according to residents’ needs. It is hoped that by having dedicated events in place, this will reduce common issues faced by new students, including: culture shock, loneliness, homesickness, poor nutrition, poor management of personal finances – all of which can lead to increased anxiety or reduced wellbeing.
In the 2016/17 academic year, CLV worked with the University of Salford to offer and cross advertise a well-thought-out programme of wellbeing events for students. Responding to research that shows the first two to six weeks at university is a crucial transition period for many new students as they adjust to a new environment, CLV developed their First Six Weeks ‘Settling In’ programme. A range of events were laid on for Salford students, designed to appeal to as many people as possible, including yoga, bubble football, ‘meet and mingle’ events, breakfast club, BBQs and a retro games night.
Author and mental health advocate Andy Dunn also delivered talks to CLV staff and Salford students, drawing upon his own experiences of depression and anxiety, to give an insight into student mental wellbeing. Rob explains how this initiative helped create a better understanding these issues: “[It] added a very personal and relatable meaning to words that are all too often used and can easily lose their meaning.”
Barriers to student wellbeing in private accommodation
As university experience varies between students, so does their ability to cope. For this reason, mental health within student accommodation is a challenging but critical issue; each student may require a different type, and amount, of support. In order to provide the appropriate support, accommodation providers need to deliver a personalised response while having something that is available for all, at any time. Rebecca describes some of the barriers to this process and the importance of joint-working as part of effective student support:
"In the private accommodation sector we are also managing a relationship with the university, who will of course have a vested interest in the pastoral care of their students. There are data protection issues around what information can and can’t be shared with whom, what support we can and can’t provide and when, and to what extent, we should or should not get involved. With some universities there is a strong collaborative relationship with regular involvement from both parties, but in other instances there may not be any relationship with the university at all, though, this is rarely the case."
Last year, CLV ran 560 events for students and saw a 33% increase in attendance of at least one event and – for the first time – an increase in students attending up to five or six events. Rob explains the reason for this: “We believe this is down to improved training and awareness of students’ needs for our Village teams, autonomy given to Village teams to create a bespoke programme of activity for their residents, and providing a programme which is free of charge, thus ensuring it's inclusive rather than exclusive.” In the 2017/18 academic year, the Village Life programme will be supported by a second Resident Life Coordinator as part of an effort to improve on these figures, working to ensure a consistent, supportive and diverse range of events across remaining Villages.
CLV are also rolling out their Village Life framework of tools and operating procedures to assist Village teams in delivering this initiative. The framework breaks the traditional academic year into nine segments and identifies the specific support, events and campaigns required by residents during these periods. The Village Life program aims to reduce many issues, including mental ill health; in March 2018 CLV will run a national mental health campaign in conjunction with the University of Bedfordshire. Picturing Mental Health will be a collaborative project that seeks to inform students that “it’s ok not to be ok.”
Notes: 1.1.1 of ProtectED's Wellbeing and Mental Health Instrument requires member universities to have formal written procedures for student wellbeing and mental health — this covers a range of issues, including student accommodation. Indicator 3.2.1 of ProtectED's International Students Instrument requires member universities to keep an up-to-date 'white list' of accredited private landlords. These measures are cited in Student Minds' University Accommodation and Mental Health report, published in May 2017.
The next Instrument to be included within the ProtectED Code of Practice model will be on student accommodation.