How accommodation teams can support national work on student mental health
13 February 2024
Jenny Shaw (HE External Engagement Director at Unite Students) gives an overview of the work of the Higher Education Mental Health Implementation Taskforce, five actions for student accommodation teams and how you can submit your own good practice to inform the Taskforce’s work.
In June 2023, the UK Government launched the Higher Education Mental Health Implementation Taskforce. Its mission is to drive the development and adoption of good practice among higher education providers in England to reduce the impact of mental distress on students. Chaired by Professor Edward Peck, the HE Student Support Champion, the Taskforce membership includes representatives of bereaved parents, students, provider groups and sector agencies.
It’s been my immense privilege to work with Professor Peck and his team since July to help support the work of the Taskforce. Initially this included meeting with some 50 stakeholders to explore areas for further improvement, and since the start of the new year, to support two of the strands of activity.
Naturally, I’ve brought in a knowledge of how student distress and mental health challenges can play out in an accommodation setting, and how staff who are not specialists in mental health can respond and signpost to services in a compassionate and boundaried way. Accommodation teams are often the eyes and ears of the university for students in residence and play an important role in student mental health.
The Taskforce has just published its first stage report – so here’s a quick look at five ways that accommodation teams and their PBSA partners can engage with this important work.
1. Be prepared: All English universities will need to sign up for the University Mental Health Charter by September 2024
Student accommodation is explicitly included in the Charter’s principles through the ‘Live’ domain. Now that the timescale has been confirmed, all English university accommodation teams can expect to be involved in some way before the end of the year. You can find out more in my previous article, including how to involve your PBSA partners.
2. Share your expertise: Student accommodation can pass on lessons learned from supporting student mental health
All staff have a role to play in responding to students in distress and noticing the signs that a student may be in difficulty. Accommodation teams have perhaps the greatest opportunity to do these things, simply because we work in their home. Regular contact through both day and night, access to living areas and even engagement with administrative processes – of which more later – all provide clues to a student’s state of mind.
This being the case, it’s hardly surprising that accommodation teams were ahead of the curve in considering the role they should play in student mental health support and managing risk.
The ‘Staff Training and Competence’ strand of Taskforce work seeks to do this more widely, looking at professional groups that have an opportunity to play a similar role such as personal tutors, academics in general, administrators and security teams. The student accommodation sector can help to share its own learnings about boundaries, signposting and responding helpfully to distressed students. CUBO are going to be contributing to this strand of work, but it’s also valuable to hear what individual institutions are doing – if you’d like to share your approach, please get in touch.
3. Future-proof: There may be an opportunity to align accommodation processes and procedures with the Taskforce’s Student Commitment
Currently under development, the Taskforce’s Student Commitment will set out good practice for compassionate processes, procedures and communications. It recognises that communication about academic or behavioural processes can be unnecessarily distressing for students due to their style, mode, language or timing. The Commitment will also support students to complain to their university about poor practices, helping to drive a continuous approach to improvement.
Core principles are being developed around communications that are emotionally intelligent, inclusive and well timed, and these principles will be published later in the year. In the meantime, a good starting point for reviewing accommodation and conduct management processes is Mohawk College’s work on psychologically attuned communication.
If you already have processes or policies that follow some or all of these guidelines, we’d love to see them – please get in touch with any examples by email.
4. Be aware: There is a national review of student suicides over the coming year
In November 2023, the Department for Education (DfE) appointed the University of Manchester’s National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health (NCISH) to conduct a National Review of confirmed, suspected and attempted suicides, with an initial focus on the current academic year. The purpose of the review, which will be published in 2025, is to share lessons learned about good practice and areas for improvement.
All universities will be encouraged to submit reviews to this national initiative, which will inevitably involve accommodation teams and their PBSA partners in the case of students in residence. The shared lessons that come out of this review should be invaluable for improving practice, and helping us to prevent some of these tragedies.
5. Share: Your good practice on case management is useful!
A case management approach to student mental health ensures a joined-up view of a student’s situation and enables the effective coordination of support from different teams. The Taskforce plans to identify and share good practice in this area.
I’m aware of a wide range of good practice that involves accommodation teams as a key stakeholder. If you would like to share a brief overview of your university’s approach, do drop me a line.
If you’d like to keep in touch with the work of the Taskforce, its website is regularly updated. I’m excited to see how its work progresses and supports the sector in the coming years.
Find out how your accommodation providers can support your University Mental Health Charter application in Jenny’s previous blog.