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Risky Business: Student Mental Health in Accommodation through a Risk-Based Perspective

12 May 2020

With the approach of Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 (Monday 18th– 24th May) it seems timely to revisit the University Mental Health Charter, which launched at the end of last year. Eighteen months in the making from announcement to delivery, it establishes a set of principles by which Universities can establish mental health as a priority and receive subsequent recognition. In the midst of the current crisis, it is vital that we don’t lose sight of its principles and recommendations, indeed they are more important now than they ever were.

The Charter is firmly rooted in the principle of a whole-university approach to student wellbeing and mental health. However, within a university the Student Services team will often take on responsibility for delivering on student mental health. As such, it is not a surprise to see an entire section of the Charter covering these services. And yet, there is unavoidable crossover of responsibility with those managing student residential accommodation. I believe this crossover is firmly rooted in the concept of Risk.

The Charter advises that universities have the necessary processes and training for staff to identify risk, report risk and appropriately refer to the relevant services. Further, there is an expectation that all non-specialist staff members have access to “timely, expert advice and guidance”. In Unite Students, it is the responsibility of Student Services & Welfare Managers to provide such training and advice. The ability to identify risk necessitates the presence of “touch-points”; opportunities to engage with the subject or their data. Where students reside in residential accommodation, the opportunity, and necessity, to identify risk is fundamental.

As the 2016 Student Living report from Student Minds pointed out, the majority of severe incidents of mental ill-health take place within a student’s residence. There is also the likelihood of collateral trauma to other residents where such incidents take place. Therefore, the expectations set under the Charter applicable to Support Services are just as relevant to those managing residences. The Charter addresses this point through the requirement that staff in residences are appropriately trained and supported in this area.

In meeting the Principles set out by the Charter, an effective relationship between university student services and accommodation providers is not only recommended; it is essential .

The Student Services Framework we operate at Unite Students is designed to work in a complimentary fashion with universities’ own services. Our risk assessment model (shown below) is built on five years’ experience in supporting students across the UK who experience mental health challenges while in their accommodation. Its purpose is to allow our local teams to be able to assess risk in the moment, using their own observations together with other data that we hold about the student(s) involved. This not only helps to ensure the safety of students, but also to liaise appropriately with their university and to ensure they can access the help they need.