Barely a week goes by without the issue of student mental health appearing in the news, along with calls to tackle what is often termed a 'mental health crisis' at UK universities. Earlier this year, Universities UK launched the Step Change framework for mental health in higher education. It is hoped that this important development will be a catalyst for change across the sector. Step Change working group chair, Professor Steve West, is now encouraging universities to "adopt mental health as a strategic priority, implementing a whole university approach, with students and staff involved at all stages of the journey."
One purpose of the ProtectED blogs is to draw attention to some of the good work that is taking place across the sector to support student safety and wellbeing. Mind The Gap is a mental health membership society for students at the University of Newcastle. We spoke to the society's president, Martha Clarkson-Cox, to find out more about it...
A core fixture in Mind The Gap's calendar of events is a series of fortnightly discussions on different topics surrounding student mental health. Each session is themed, often around issues that may be arising for students at certain points in the academic year; a recent discussion looked at mental health and moving away from home. Mind The Gap committee members plan each session to follow a similar pattern, beginning with small groups, moving on to a whole group conversation and ending with a themed creative workshop. Small group discussion encourages students to feel more comfortable about opening up to each other on a specific aspect of the chosen topic. The large group session then enables everyone to share their ideas and points. Discussion lead, Alana, explains that working in this way "sparks excellent debate and conversation, and becomes really fascinating to all participants." Finally, the creative workshop section gives students the opportunity to produce a leaflet/poster with tips for their peers on dealing with the issue at hand. For example, during the recent discussion on transitioning to university, members made posters with advice for those who are struggling to deal with the move.
A sense of community
Alternating with the discussion sessions, the Society arrange fortnightly 'socials' to help members to get to know each other and develop a sense of community. These events are centred around being fun and accessible for all, offering an alternative to the usual drinking/clubbing socials at university. Events include murder mysteries, movie nights, scavenger hunts, and ten-pin bowling.
Members can also attend 'Positivitea' — a coffee shop meet-up at the weekends when some students might feel lonely, particularly if they have struggled to make friends at university. 'Positivitea' aims to be round-up to the week and provides a welcoming, regular opportunity for people to pop in and talk with friends and members.
In addition to group discussions and socials, Mind The Gap run a more formal weekly peer support session, led by facilitators. Facilitators are on an equal footing to members in these sessions, where everyone can share their thoughts and experiences — they simply ensure that a friendly face is present each week to lead the conversation (if needed), and they are available to take over if anyone leaves the room and a Welfare Officer needs to check up on them. Facilitating roles are only open to committee members, as they have received mental wellbeing training from the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust. However, there are plans to open up facilitating roles as a volunteering opportunity for members who receive this training. Recruitment will begin next semester during the University's ‘Refreshers’ fair.
Between meetings, members can also make use of an online support forum; a private Facebook group moderated by Welfare and Social Media officers. Members can discuss their feelings or offer advice, as long as they follow the moderation rules on using content warnings and maintaining group confidentiality (for example, not taking screenshots of other member’s posts to share outside of the group). Both on campus and online, Mind The Gap emphasise that they offer a friendly ear to listen and signpost, rather than to provide professional support.
Mind The Gap members can even get involved in volunteering opportunities such as running mental health workshops in local schools, or informative stalls that are situated outside of the Students' Union on various mental health awareness days.
The society brings together experts, charities and relevant organisations once a year for the annual Mind The Gap conference. This is entirely organised and run by student volunteers, and it is also open to the general public. The conference attracts speakers from around the country; this year's conference included talks from academics and experts on a range of mental health issues, as well as meditation sessions, a poetry slam, and panels dedicated to exploring mental illness from certain perspectives, including for LGBT+ and BAME students. Plans are already underway for the 2018 conference, which will be extended across two days.
What does your university do to support student wellbeing and mental health? Please get in touch to tell us more!
Note: The Student Wellbeing and Mental Health instrument of the ProtectED Code of Practice requires member universities to engage in awareness raising events (2.1.1), provide peer-to-peer support for students (2.4.1), and to offer 'out of hours' mental health support (3.5.2).