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University – the best times of our lives?

  • 7 March 2019
  • By Graham Galbraith

A guest blog kindly contributed for University Mental Health Day by Graham Galbraith, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Portsmouth.

When my generation reflects on our university days, we tend to think they were the best years of our lives. These days, with the media focus on poor student mental health, young people could be forgiven for wondering why.

There is undoubtedly a rise in demand for mental health services. A recent NHS survey in England found that the proportion of young people seeking help from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) has more than doubled over the past two years. HEPI has itself reported that students experience higher levels of anxiety and that their declared wellbeing levels are declining over-time.

Universities need to recognise that times have changed, that going to university presents new challenges and emotional pressures, not least because we are now recruiting the first generation of young people to have spent their entire teenage years exposed to social media.

These new challenges interact with the old challenges we all faced. The transition from school or college to university is not a simple one. Many young people are separated from lifelong friends in a new city or town, or even country. Whether it is the first time they have lived away from home or not, the feeling of ‘homesickness’ is real. And, yet at the same time, they are opening a new exciting chapter in their lives that can transform their life-chances.

Research shows that between 50-70% of students experience ‘homesickness’ in their early days at university, with the impact not equally felt. Some students need extra support. Emotional challenges are accompanied by academic and social challenges – including deadlines and new-found peer pressures which can often exacerbate the ‘perfectionism’ from which many young people suffer.

On University Mental Health Day, as a sector we should reflect on these things, particularly on how we can make the transition as simple and easy as possible, while allowing students to grow and become independent and resilient individuals. Too often, the traditional routes of help (speaking to the university counsellor or university staff) can seem inaccessible. Universities need to be creative in helping students in ways that are relevant to them and the way they now communicate.

At the University of Portsmouth we would not claim to have cracked the problem and there remains a long way to go but we have made a good start. This year we introduced ‘Wellbeing Transition Days’ for students with a declared mental health disability (as well as their supporters). The day gave students an opportunity to meet other students and discuss strategies for maintaining wellbeing during their transition to university life.

It is clear that meeting our Wellbeing and Additional Support and Disability Advice Centre (ASDAC) staff has helped develop relationships with key staff, taking away some of the mystery of life at University and, importantly, has re-assured them and their supporters.

Our students also have access to our ‘WhatsUp?’ app. The app, co-designed by one of our own students, is a secure, confidential online space that provides daily tools to promote positive mental health, and instantly support those students that need help.

Via messaging, the app also provides two-way communication directly with University Wellbeing staff. WhatsUp? has been downloaded by hundreds of students, providing them with safe and secure access to vital services.

We have also introduced a ‘Welcome Ambassadors’ initiative. The initiative, led by 80 trained student ambassadors, offers a peer-based structure that helps students make connections, build networks and develop that vital sense of sense of belonging that can make all the difference as they adjust to their new lives. The Welcome Ambassadors’ motto is ‘Lead. Inspire. Connect.’ Central to the initiative is the degree to which student ambassadors shape its future development and share their own experiences of the transition to university.

Throughout the year we also run a ‘Wellbeing Café’. With the support of Wellbeing staff, students run what is a social place for them to spend time, chat, play a game or take part in an activity that supports their wellbeing. The idea of a café is important: students can socialise and have fun together without any pressure to drink alcohol. Social life at university is not all about drink.

Developing students’ peer-support capacity, their sense of belonging, and helping them to fit in and adapt to university life should be a core part of a university’s response to the evident mental health challenges that more and more young people and students experience.

Students are human beings, with all the energy and creativity, hopes and fears, talents and weaknesses that make them unique. They deserve to be supported and developed to be the very best they can be. We must help our students to help themselves not just to navigate their time at university but also to have the resilience needed for their whole life.

There is a long way to go. The rise of social media and use of technology as well as the changing pace of life has created a whole range of pressures people of my generation did not experience.

In making the transition to university easier and in generating a sense of belonging, we can prepare our students for their journey through life, ensuring they can go as far as they want their talents to take them. And, after all, is that not what a university education is all about?

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