What have we been doing to improve mental health at York?

By Clara Garcia, our VP Wellbeing and Community

During the past year and a half most student services and the way they are being delivered have changed, but the increasing need of students to get more support from University has continued to rise. As I already stated in my manifesto, students’ mental health needs to be a whole-institution priority. And this was an objective to be accomplished before the pandemic. Anyone who has been studying during a semester at a higher education institution would tell you that students’ mental health and wellbeing are closely linked to the way we relate with our University, the pedagogies and educational approaches taken, the way marking is delivered, and the support throughout the continuous bureaucratic procedures and support structures  influence our lives.

As the Wellbeing and Community Officer at a postgraduate level, I am part of the diverse forums where different student support services are reviewed and discussed such as:  Student Life Committee, Health and Safety Committee and the Students Mental Health Forum. I also work closely with relevant departments at University such as the Open Door and Disabilities Team and the Student Life and Wellbeing Team and Unity Health, and I am consulted on changes and improvements in different University Policies relevant to students mental health and wellbeing such as the University Mental Health Strategy 2017/2020Dignity at Work and Study Policy, the Support to Study Policy, the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion strategy, or the Inclusive teaching, learning and assessment policy, and I design and develop campaigns informed by students in the Wellbeing Forums or the GSA Council Welfare sub-group in order to represent student views across my work.

What does Uni provide and what students need? 

As the PRES (Postgraduate Research Experience Survey, 2019) showcased, UoY has the lowest scoring sections in professional development and wellbeing, which fall below the global and Russell Group averages and are placed in the third and lowest quarter respectively. Students who have considered leaving or​ ​suspending their course are a perceived lack of support from their departments, difficulties​ ​managing paid​ ​work and study, financial pressures and anxiety issues.​ Suggestions from students to increase wellbeing support include additional training for supervisors, increased communication around where to seek help and the type of help available, a mentoring scheme, more social interaction to avoid isolation, better integration of international students and more support for​ ​students with dependants.​

What is being done? 

The University Academic Registrar, ProViceChancellor for Teaching and Learning, Open Door and Disabilities Team and the Student Unions are currently redesigning its University Mental Health Strategy for the upcoming years, examining the current model and informed by the findings of the UKK Step Change and the Student Minds Mental Health Charter.

Even if this work was delayed by the lockdown response until February 2021, there were some actions taken during the 2019/2020 period. As an immediate measure, there were recommendations for improving the support offered in academic departments.  On 19 November 2019 UEB (University Executive Board) approved a tiered student wellbeing support model with generalist first response staff (the new Student Life and Wellbeing Officers roles) located in academic departments and line managed by professionally qualified Open Door staff. There are now ten Student Life and Wellbeing Officer posts, based in geographical zones and embedded in departments to support student welfare across the University, reporting to 3 professionally qualified practitioner posts in the Open Door Team.

In the past months, the University has started to sense check students’ wellbeing during lockdown with weekly surveys. The student pulse surveys showcase how students are missing departmental contact and peer to peer support, so the Student Life and Opportunities Contingency Group developed two initiatives: the Departmental Student Connect (DSC) Schemes (similar to colleges buddy’s scheme) to connect students in the same cohorts, and the Building departmental community project, were PGR and PGT students have been recruited to enhance departmental community.

What’s the union’s perspective? 

The last 16th of February the working group reviewing the University Mental Health Strategy reinstated their activity. The GSA Advice Service and myself decided then to present an overview of the university services according to the last survey to students and our own experiences. We found that:

Based on these findings, we resolve to present three key areas of development for the University to implement in their strategy:

  1. Conduct a periodic evaluation of students’ mental health and wellbeing services such as the College teams, Student Hub, ODD and SWOs, and use this information in order to implement improvements to these services.
  2. Further investigation of the barriers students face when attempting to access support and disclose their difficulties,  with appropriate action then being taken in order to reduce and remove these barriers.
  3. Adopting a whole-University approach to mental health and wellbeing (including curricula and academic content).

Next Steps

You can find more about our proposals and a breakdown of results and suggestions in this report. This report will be converted into a union policy at our next student council (if the motion passes!) in order to incorporate this view as a union perspective. Our recommendations were accepted by the working group and are now being incorporated into the University Mental Health Strategy implementation plan. We hope this can be the first step of a university approach based on students perspectives and views, and that we can develop a vision for student wellbeing and mental health that tackles student needs.

4th March 2021