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The Bridge Network: Peer support for health sciences students at the University of Nottingham

As the number of students experiencing mental health difficulties continues to grow — evidenced by the 210% increase in students dropping out of university and a 94% rise in students seeking counselling — universities are under pressure to understand and effectively address this problem. The traditional challenges that many students face, clearly still apply. It can take time to settle into a new place, make friends, and adjust to the pace of university life. But narratives are emerging around specific student groups, such as international students, postgraduate students, or those studying certain subjects, and the type of issues that they encounter that can impact negatively upon mental wellbeing.

At the University of Nottingham, staff and students have reflected upon the specific support needs of health sciences students; how the training involved for those undertaking these subjects may cause additional stress and create barriers for accessing other support initiatives. This includes continuous assessment periods, lengthy work-based placements throughout all years of the programmes, and the requirement to work outside the traditional academic year. This led to the establishment of the Bridge Network — a student-led peer support network for those studying the health sciences. We spoke to one of the founders, Dr Anne Felton, to find out more about this work.

Who was involved in the decision to start the Bridge Network, and why was it established?

The Bridge Network was conceived by Sabrina Carter, at the time a 3rd Year BSc Nursing student, and myself (a Mental Health Nursing academic at the University of Nottingham's School of Health Sciences). The idea grew from our mutual interest in student mental health and from working together on activities to promote good mental health. I have many years’ experience of working with students who have their own lived experience of mental distress, who may be attracted to work in the caring professions. I was aware that students could feel alone in this experience. As a mental health nurse with a research and practice interest in recovery, I was also impressed by innovations, such as peer support, that were creating waves in mental health care, and saw an opportunity for such approaches to be integrated into universities where student mental health is a growing challenge.

During her training, Sabrina has organised a mental health awareness workshop for students and staff in the School, coinciding with a national mental health day. I supported her with this activity, which was very well received by students and staff in the School. The workshop created a welcoming space for conversations about mental health. As a result of this collaboration, we developed the idea for the Bridge Network.

What are the benefits of having an academic member of staff and a student running the project?

Both parties bring a unique set of experiences and expertise to the development. The principles underpinning peer support recognise that it is shared experience that brings a mutual understanding, therefore the project would have been impossible without the joint leadership of students. However, my involvement as an experienced member of academic staff has facilitated the negotiation of organisational barriers, access to resources and provided consistency to the project (Sabrina has now graduated from the course), and worked towards minimising any additional workload for student contributors. Bringing together this type of different expertise also mirrors the '