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Support to Stay: Supporting student mental health at scale

10 October 2022

Student mental health support is a shared challenge across the Higher Education sector, and a holistic, collaborative approach is fundamental to addressing it. Unite Students’ new student support framework, ‘Support to Stay’, aims to join up our student support services with those of our university partners.

Five years after it rocketed to the top of Higher Education’s agenda, student mental health remains a shared challenge for the sector. There has been a great sector-wide effort to collaborate on sharing data, resources and best practice, leading to great strides in our collective understanding of what is required from student support services – both in universities and private purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA).

But the scale of the challenge continues to increase. Our 2022 applicant index showed a rise in the number of university applicants with a mental health condition, of whom 3 in 10 said they wouldn’t disclose to their university. This comes amid the challenges of the cost of living crisis; in our April research, some 50% of students said that this was having an impact on their mental health.

In light of these emerging challenges, and following careful consultation with university partners and students, our student support team have launched a new framework: Support to Stay.


What is Support to Stay?

Launched for the start of the 2022/23 academic year, Support to Stay is a consistent national support framework with a graded approach to intervention, meaning that appropriate and timely support can be provided when a student’s health or wellbeing causes concern.

Its fundamental aim is to provide students with a supportive living environment to help them fulfil their potential to the greatest extent possible, even when experiencing medical, physical, or mental, health difficulties, or other challenges. In line with Head of Student Support Becca Hayhurst’s 15 years of experience in the student support team at Harper Adams University, it’s designed to align with university ‘support to study’ practices.

The graded approach begins with our routine welfare offer, available to all students. This includes basic support such as general signposting to services, welfare checks as required, and raising awareness of known risks such as personal safety, on which we are holding a dedicated campaign in October. The majority of students won’t require extra support on top of this – but, when concerns emerge, there are three tiers of intervention.


How the intervention model works

The first tier is for when initial concerns emerge, whether that’s a student showing signs of distress or an incident occurring, that requires swift intervention through signposting and additional support. This is being supported by training all our student-facing employees to notice warning signs and know how to effectively signpost a student to relevant support services.

The next tier is for those students whose situation doesn’t improve after early interventions and whose wellbeing is continuing to cause concern – or for students for whom there is significant concern in the first instance. This is the point at which our student support team will link up with our university partners to make sure they are aware of the situation, subject to data sharing processes.

Finally, for the small percentage of students who are still struggling following a progression from the first two tiers – or where there are severe, immediate concerns about a student’s ability to remain in their accommodation – there will be an escalation to the third and final tier, in collaboration with their university.

If the student is unable to remain in their accommodation or continue with their studies, at this stage our support teams will manage their withdrawal in a structured and sympathetic way. That means keeping everyone safe: the student themselves, other students in the building, and our employees.


The role of student accommodation in student wellbeing

University support services are crucial for many students, whether through providing direct support or signposting to appropriate local services. But student accommodation is often the environment in which a student discloses or displays signs of distress, or experiences incidents which can impact on wellbeing. Without collaboration with accommodation partners, universities may not be privy to this information, and gaps can emerge. That could mean missed opportunities for early intervention, or unreported incidents which indicate that a student’s condition is deteriorating.

As such, a community-wide approach to student wellbeing has consistently been recommended across the sector, and collaboration between universities and accommodation providers is referenced in the ANUK/Unipol national codes which regulate more than 300,000 student rooms across the UK.

This was work that Unite Students were already carrying out since 2015, having been the first PBSA provider to have a student support team to complement and collaborate with university support services. The organisation has also consistently supported sector collaboration on the topic, such as contributing to the creation of the British Property Federation’s framework for student wellbeing in PBSA.

Our services and processes have been routinely refreshed in line with best practice and evolving needs of the 74,000 students who live in our buildings – and Support to Stay is the latest evolution of this work.


How will the Support to Stay framework be implemented?

Support to Stay is being put into practice across our portfolio now, and there’s plenty of work going into it. That includes staff training, strengthening our data sharing practices in order to more effectively align with our university partners, and sharing what we’re doing with the sector at a number of conferences and round tables over the coming months. We also encourage university partners to get in touch with their regional student support manager if you are currently reviewing your own support policies.

During the initial rollout phase we will continue to review how the framework is working alongside our university partners, as well as undertaking further consultation with students. Once feedback has been assessed and there has been a chance to reflect on case studies, as well as any amends made to our practices and processes, we intend to formally launch the initiative in the spring term.


The Higher Education sector is united by the will to see students succeed, and few would argue that wellbeing is fundamental to their success. With cross-sector collaboration, innovation and communication at the heart of our approach, we hope to support more students to successful outcomes during their stay with us.

You can read our June interview with Becca Hayhurst, Head of Student Support, on our website, and listen to our Accommodation Matters podcast episode on the future of student mental health here:

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