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‘Look after your mate’: Our new peer support initiative

11 November 2021

We’ve launched a pilot of ‘Look after your mate’ workshops for students, to guide them on what to do if a friend is struggling. Jenny Dalzell, Student Support Manager at Unite Students, shares more about this initiative, including what it involves, why we’re doing it, and how we’re doing it.

Student wellbeing has come to the fore of the Higher Education sector’s agenda in recent years, and never more so than during the pandemic. As an organisation, we’re constantly adapting and bolstering our mental health and wellbeing responses: embedding Mental Health First Aid across our cities, improving our student support service, and ensuring all our frontline staff members have a basic awareness of wellbeing, as well as working with our university partners to establish what services and paths they can offer through their own support services.

However, our teams aren’t always privy to the signs of a student’s struggles. In 2017/18, 3.5% of students reported a mental health concern to their university – but in the same time period, 75% of students with mental health difficulties disclosed these to a fellow student. Friends are seen by students as a fundamental part of the student experience, and our 2019 insight report New Realists found that friendships play both a practical and emotional role in students’ lives. It follows, then, that friends can play an important part in helping students to get mental health support when they need it.

In order to help students support their friends through challenging times, and ensure they look after themselves while doing so, we have this week launched a pilot of ‘Look after your mate’ workshops, with content developed by UK student mental health charity Student Minds.

These are being delivered to students both online and in properties by in-house trainers, in cities where there may not be an established university programme on offer, allowing us to educate students while maintaining our boundaries as an accommodation provider. While the programme will be promoted to all students living with us in the pilot cities, we’re anticipating that it will be most popular with first-years while they’re still settling in at university – particularly at this time of year, when students have been in their flats for several months and are getting to know their flatmates on a deeper level.

Students taking part in ‘Look after your mate’ workshops will learn how to pick up when a friend may be struggling, techniques for communicating with them about what’s going on, signposting for further support, boundaries, and how to look after yourself while supporting a friend. Signposting, self-care and boundaries are vital elements to the programme, as it’s important that students don’t end up taking on their friend’s troubles and struggling as a result.

By adding another tool to our mental health and wellbeing kit, we’re ultimately hoping that more students will be encouraged to seek support early on, reducing the number of mental health-related incidents that occur in our buildings. We’ll be looking at attendance levels, students’ feedback forms, and feedback from staff, and then using this information to evaluate how the project has gone in December and whether we roll it out nationally.

Practice workshops with our welfare leads and other staff members have seen overwhelmingly positive feedback. One welfare lead said: “It seems like [students] are doing the training to help their friends – which they are – but it’s actually helping them loads too.” If the programme can help students to be proactive in supporting their own mental health, that’s just an added bonus for us.

You can find out more about ‘Look after your mate’ on Student Minds’ website.

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