Mental health has come to the fore over the last few years, with charities, royals and employers working hard to highlight what has often been a hidden disability. As the issue has received more attention, both in the press and among policy-makers, one of the key areas of discussion has been how we can improve the mental health of young adults, often in relation to students.
Students are under a great deal of pressure and it is evident from research reports and media coverage of individual stories that it is taking its toll on our young people.
There are many factors which can contribute to poor mental health among young adults, particularly at the transition point between further and higher education.
There is the step up to degree level academic studies; there is a pressure to make new friends; and then, for many, there is the uncertainty that comes from living away from home and established support networks for the first time.
In addition, students are often focused on securing a job straight after graduating, which can exacerbate fears of failure - particularly for those who struggle to find adequate work experience.
And of course, increasing social media and smart phone use can lead to students experiencing sleepless nights as well as a lack of in-person contact. There is often a perceived expectation to ‘live life to the full’ while at college or university, which leads to people feeling inadequate if their experience does not live up to what they see from others.
Consequently, young adulthood can be an extremely stressful period, feelings of isolation and loss of identity can set in, and this can lead to poor mental health or a period of instability for a pre-identified condition.
Much of the focus around student mental health is on the university experience. The Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah MP, has made it clear that he considers this a key issue for Vice Chancellors to address, writing to the leaders of all UK universities at the start of Freshers Week to urge action.
However, this should not be seen as solely the responsibility of universities. Accommodation providers have a vital role to play as issues with poor mental health are often first experienced where students live rather than where they learn.
We also can’t ignore the potential for the sector to work alongside organisations and charities working with young people as they work towards higher education. Highlighting and supporting that transition, can provide great gains in preparing students on arrival at university.
As we begin to understand more about the pressures students face and the impact these can have on their wellbeing, accommodation providers are looking for ways to increase the support we offer to our residents.
We are not the right organisations to provide counselling or professional help, but we must be able to recognise and respond to signs that a student is struggling and direct them to the services available.
We also need to create a welcoming environment for students to live in, as this will help improve mental wellbeing and help the community to support one another when someone isn’t feeling themselves.
Over the past year, Campus Living Villages has been working with our university partners and residents to explore potential solutions to the concerning levels of poor student mental health we are seeing across the country.
Online research carried out with the Student Room revealed that rates of poor mental health were higher among students than those cited by the general population. This raises serious questions about the level of resource available and ease of access to mental health support available at universities.
To help address some of these issues we hosted a roundtable earlier this year, asking universities to share their challenges and learn from one another, and inviting students to provide their perspective based on first-hand experiences.
Our charity partners were also able to offer their expert insights on the best ways to ensure students can access the services they need at the right time. Throughout the discussions, collaboration was cited again and again as the key to tackling the problem.
So, in July, we hosted a Mental Health Symposium, with speakers from the University of Derby, Universities UK, University of Bristol and University of Cambridge. The call for greater collaboration was reiterated, but participants also highlighted the impact that small changes such as improvements to lighting can have on student wellbeing.
Universities and accommodation providers already think about the impact of building design on students from an accessibility perspective and adapt for students with different physical disabilities, but perhaps we need to do more to consider how we can adapt environments to boost mental wellbeing too.
Ultimately, there is no one size fits all solution, no silver bullets. We must acknowledge that changes need to be made – but these may not all need to be grand implementation programmes – a well thought our residential life programme, a friendly face at reception or small changes in lighting will all go some way to making a difference. What is clear is that mental wellbeing needs to be front of mind for student accommodation providers.
Based on our research and many discussions with partners, universities and students, we have now set up a Mental Wellbeing Strategic Group to explore what changes we can make to better support students and universities.
This Group will ensure that our business is working hard to help our residents feel supported, are able to talk about their mental health, and know how to access professional help if needed. Our ultimate goal is to work with partner organisations to encourage positive mental wellbeing, so less people reach crisis point and need professional support.
This is not an issue with an easy solution, and we need organisations from all sections of society to work together to support young people and help them develop coping strategies long before they start university.
But by ensuring mental wellbeing is front of mind when we begin every project, we hope to make university a less stressful, more enjoyable experience for our residents. We hope other accommodation providers will join us in giving mental health this same level of importance.
Nadine Lee, University Partnerships Director, Campus Living Villages
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