By Ed Southgate, co-Editor in Chief
In December, Bristol published its new Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy, which was put together with the SU following a consultation in which 200 students gave their feedback on the available support. But what is this new Strategy? Will it make any real change? Here, we give you the low-down on what it's all about.
What is so significant about this?
The Strategy was put together after a consultation in which 200 students gave their feedback on wellbeing support, meaning the University has listened directly to our concerns and is planning to address them.
Mark Ames, Director of Student Services, summarised its significance in relation to its "whole-institution approach". 'In the past universities have generally tended to see student mental health as something that is the preserve of student services and counselling services. The Strategy we developed is based on the best available evidence on what is the best approach to take', he said.
'It also represents a very strong commitment by the University to address this issue at all levels'.
He added: 'Senior Leadership will continue to take a very active interest both in the Strategy and how it is implemented, and what the measures of success look like. That level of senior engagement is really important.
The other thing that is really significant is that we are investing a lot in the Residential Life and Support Services, which are intended to be pro-active to build communities and give students a sense of belonging'.
What does it include?
The strategy is structured broadly in line with what the University frequently terms a 'whole-institution approach' to tackling the mental health crisis across the sector. It identifies eight key areas which it will use to ensure students are fully supported during their time at Bristol; Transitions, Prevention, Early Intervention, Support, Staff, Partnerships, Data and Research, and Leadership.
These strategic themes were proposed by UUK, which represents universities, in its #StepChange framework for mental health in higher education.
What are the key changes?
There are 46 points within the Strategy of what the University aims to do next to ensure students are better supported throughout their studies.
Among the key plans set out in the strategy, the University is aiming to signpost more clearly the support that is available for students. Mark Ames, Bristol's Director of Student Services, noted that students are 'often very positive about the quality of that support' when they find it, but that 'the challenge for many is finding the right support in the first place'.
'One of things that we’re going to be prioritising for the beginning of the new academic year', he said, 'is how we can simplify the information that students have to get their heads around in order to access the support they need'.
The University aims to increase its support for students transitioning from home to Bristol for the first time, increasing the number of opportunities for new arrivals to disclose any pre-existing conditions, in order for them to access the right support as soon as possible.
During stressful exam seasons, free activity classes will be offered for all students. There will also be a number of considerations of how to reduce the cost of studying, looking at issues including rent and transportation.
There will be investigations into a possible overhaul of the student monitoring system to decide how best to ensure early-identification of withdrawal from engagement activities, which can be an indicator of a student in distress.
It will also be maintaining its current partnerships with external organisations such as Papyrus and NHS England.
There will also be advances in the University's research into wellbeing, as they set up a Mental Health Research Network and introduce a student wellbeing assessment at registration from 2018/19.
How will the Univerity fund all of this?
There is not expected to be any further investment yet in student services, the aim seems to be on efficiency of the funds that are available. The budget for student support is said to have been protected for the next academic year, and Mark Ames said that 'there has been a lot of investment' already.
He added that 'further down the road, clearly there may come a point where we have to make additional investment'.
Read more here.
When will we see change, and in what form?
This is a good question. The Strategy is filled with commitments to 'consider' or 'look into' a variety of new directions and policies that may make wellbeing support easier to access, or reduce the financial burden on students that may cause wellbeing issues in the first place.
In some areas, change has already happened. This has come in the form of the halls review, which saw the removal of Wardens and Deputy Wardens in favour of a 'hub' system which provides 24/7 support from wellbeing professionals. We have also seen the implementation of wellbeing advisors in each school.
The University also introduced its 'opt-in' system this year, where students could name parent or carer to be contacted if they were thought to be at risk. Almost all students signed up for this, at 94 per cent.
Due to the variety of pledges made in the Strategy, different aims will take longer or shorter than others to implement. Mark Ames, the Director of Student Services at the University, said that one concrete area that they are hoping to have in place by the beginning of the next academic year is a clearer signposting of the support available.
He said that students are 'often very positive about the quality of support' when they find it, but 'the challenge for many is finding the right support in the first place'. The aim is to 'get to a point where there is a clear front door for student services', both online and around campus, to make it 'easier for students to find the support the first time'.
They will similarly be looking to change the counselling system for the beginning of the next academic year to one that would allow students to access the service more quickly. The University will be adopting a system called One At A Time, which has already been implemented by a number of universities and allows students to book appointments as they need them rather than having to book 4-6 sessions in advance.
The changes that may take a little longer to implement include introducing a monitoring system. With a student body of over 20,000, the University has to make sure that the level of monitoring, if any, that they introduce will be reasonable; there is currently an ongoing discussion about the action plan for the Strategy where the SU and students can talk about issues such as this. What would be too much monitoring that we feel our independence is being infringed upon? What would be too little that the system itself is rendered rather useless?