Many Hands project: A collaborative approach by small-setting, independent, higher education providers to student mental health solutions

A group of small, independent, higher education providers developed a unique cross-provider peer mentoring programme to offer easily accessible, flexible and discreet wellbeing support to mature, creative, and Black, Asian and minority ethnic students.

8 pairs of hands of different ethnicities touching in the middle of a circle

Many Hands was a collaborative project led by the Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM), in partnership with Independent Higher Education (IHE), SAE Institute, Futureworks, Matrix College of Counselling and Psychotherapy, Regent College London, Richmond American University London, and Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, with specialist and technical expertise provided by The Ambassador Platform (TAP), and Applied Inspiration’s SEER (Specialist Evidence, Evaluation and Research) service. 

This project was funded as part of the Mental Health Funding Programme: Using innovation and intersectional approaches to target mental health support for students.

The project aimed to provide an additional wellbeing service to students, facilitating early intervention and prevention of poor mental health, with a view to improved positive practical outcomes. The focus was the development and testing of an online peer mentoring service allowing students from partner institutions across England to easily and discreetly access wellbeing support from a centralised pool of trained fellow students with a wide variety of lived experience. We targeted mature, creative, and Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students, considering intersectionality of characteristics.

At small independent higher education providers, many students are unable to access more targeted mental health and wellbeing services due to limited resources and economies of scale. While 39 per cent of students at independent higher education providers access some mental health or wellbeing support, this figure falls to 21 per cent for BAME students, 24 per cent for those studying on creative courses, and 20 per cent for mature students (IHE Membership survey – Student Access to Mental Health Services, November 2020). There is also strong evidence that these groups can experience greater challenges in regard to mental health and wellbeing (Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2011; Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2021; Mental Health Foundation, 2021; Shorter et al, 2018). Poor mental health is a known contributory factor in lower levels of positive student outcomes (OfS 2019).

Peer mentoring is suggested as effective for low-level mental health challenges and prevention (Student Minds, 2014). It also mitigates against the challenges of stigma and confidentiality, which can be a substantive barrier to help-seeking, compounded by the small size of independent higher education partners: students might not want to talk to someone they know, or for staff and peers to know they are seeking help. The project aimed to support practical outcomes for students by:

  • Reducing burden on individual providers to develop new interventions and removing pressure from clinical mental health provision at individual providers where appropriate through shared resource
  • Providing a discreet and remotely accessible service, and widening access to peer groups that better reflect the identities of target students
  • Facilitating early intervention in mental health and mitigating against escalation where possible through friendly, informal peer support.

Other complementary project activities included collaboration with the mental health charity Mind to develop staff-led student mental health literacy training, developing advice and guidance for independent higher education providers on working with the NHS and third parties, and capitalising on the benefits of multi-partner collaborations in independent higher education.

What took place, what worked well and why?

Considerable time was frontloaded to establish appropriate and effective governance mechanisms, with clear and consistent leadership and dedicated project management. Partner engagement was sustained across the project due to top-down commitment and allocation of staff resource.

Partners brought specific areas of expertise. The mentoring programme design was led by expert colleagues (Matrix College of Counselling and Psychotherapy) and a cross-partner sub-group of student services staff, evolving over time with input from a student advisory group and subsequently trained student mentors.

The programme, including recruitment of mentors and mentees, was managed centrally by Futureworks, with several iterations to the student engagement strategy, responding to unexpected low uptake by mentees. 

Trialling of the digital mentoring platform (The Ambassador Platform) was limited due to project timeframe and low mentee uptake, but established that those mentees engaged preferred to communicate with mentors by other means, such as face-to-face, phone, WhatsApp and Zoom.

Safeguarding and evaluation were at the programme’s core, necessitating a lengthy development process (six months) and associated complex range of policies, procedures and paperwork. Whilst this protected all involved and allowed us to capture information, it proved to be a significant barrier to student engagement in the programme and its evaluation. However, ongoing project evaluation, the strategic approach and flexibility of partners allowed the project to respond quickly to student feedback, adapting the mentoring model to be more immediate in its response to student needs.

What have been the barriers or challenges?

While the project received a significant number of students expressing an interest in taking part as mentors (56) and as mentees (90), not all of these translated into active or sustained mentoring relationships, with 19 mentors and 36 mentees engaging in mentoring relationships by project end. The project team found that low student engagement was due to the following reasons:

  • Messaging – original messaging focused on help to solve non-specific problems. A subsequent, more direct, approach linked to the kinds of difficulties that the students might be experiencing, related to the academic calendar. Finally, a more positive approach was taken (‘be brilliant this year’) and replaced ‘mentor’ with ‘buddy’. It was found that ‘peer mentoring’ and ‘wellbeing’ can be ambiguous. Messaging also had to be adapted to meet the individual contexts of providers and types of students.
  • Student diversity – it was difficult to find a communication approach that addressed the barriers across the target student groups; students are individuals, with often complex backgrounds and needs. Cultural barriers meant that it was difficult to find a common language of mental health and students lacked confidence in coming forward for a number of reasons, including stigma around mental health.
  • Wellbeing fatigue – students (particularly the ‘Covid generation’) were perhaps fatigued from hearing about wellbeing support initiatives, particularly those delivered online.
  • Immediate student needs/time constraints – due to the overall project timeframe the programme was launched at Christmas when students were already established in their studies and focused on assessment. Many mentees were signing up for the programme, then disengaging. Matching and meeting, and completing necessary paperwork took time, and mentees were sometimes able to source support elsewhere in the meantime. Potential mentees also found they had insufficient time to engage, despite being keen on the initiative initially.
  • Impact of COVID-19 – some students were not fully back on campus until 2022, and many were struggling to the adjustment of returning to in-person academic life. Partners also found that, due to the disruptions of secondary education, many 18-year-olds were presenting as 16-year-olds in terms of life experience and were less socialised, and therefore perhaps less aware of, or lacked confidence in accessing, wellbeing issues and support.
  • Busy staff – as is typical in small institutions, individual staff hold multiple roles, and most student services staff were unable to engage in intense targeted student recruitment.

What was the result?


The majority of mentors and mentees came from one partner, Regent College, which had the highest number of students and with many students also studying health and social care studies. This partner in particular also took a highly proactive, targeted approach to engagement.

The evaluation found that there was a positive impact of mentoring on the wellbeing of mentees who engaged in sustained mentoring relationships. Students reported that they were more likely to disclose their mental health challenges, including to their institution, friends or family, tutors, and relevant professionals, although it is too early to tell whether long-term changes in mental health or wellbeing outcomes are apparent for students who accessed the programme. Mentees found it helpful to have someone they could talk to about personal and academic matters and who could relate to their life experience. Some mentees found regular communication from their mentor impactful in relieving social anxiety and anxiety relating to assignment submission.


Mentoring was found to be hugely successful as a way of creating belonging/wellbeing, skills development, increased employability and evaluators suggested potential for retention and progression for mentors. Mentors reported that the mentor community was a safe space to share challenges of mentor-mentee journey and acquire additional training to develop their skills to support vulnerable students.

Impact on partner institutions

A more sensitive and informed approach to supporting students with mental health challenges was developed at partner institutions, as well as a more nuanced understanding of the nature of culturally appropriate and competent support. This does not solely relate to what one may consider key demographic attributes of individuals, e.g., shared ethnicity, age, etc. Rather, it is a broader construct, such as shared experiences of studying alongside meeting familial responsibilities, or adapting to student life away from home. This provides a wider lens through which institutions may think about appropriate support, training and ideas about community and identity. Partner institutions also reported an increase in the development and implementation of strategic approaches to student mental health, due to sharing of best practice and access to other student services structures. Training in student mental health literacy was provided to all partners, which has been embedded at some places. Partners were able to share knowledge and learning pertaining to third party support for small-scale provision, providing guidance for the wider IHE membership.

Could the approach be replicated and scaled up?

Key things to consider regarding replicating the project elsewhere include:

  • Adequate resourcing – Projects of this nature are extremely resource intensive and need to be resourced appropriately, with a realistic and informed expectation of the time taking to get the programme up and running, and to sustain and evaluate it.
  • Establishing need – Given the above, consideration needs to be given to the interest in peer mentoring as a mental health intervention at individual providers, to meet student needs via the most appropriate means.
  • A student-centred approach – Attempting to target specific groups is insufficiently nuanced as it does not cover the whole student experience: student categories are very broad and associated challenges not necessarily present. Many students don’t fit or want to be grouped, preferring fluidity in identity and finding commonalities in lived experience. More tailored and personalised approaches are required.
  • Collaboration – Resources should be built into organisational strategy to enable long-term continuity of commitment to multiple-partner innovation projects.

Is there evidence of sustainability beyond the lifetime of the project?

One of our partners, Regent College, is continuing its own student-led, social model of peer-mentoring, employing key learning and tools from the Many Hands project.

Another partner, IHE, which led the Many Hands Legacy Sub-Group, has approved the pursuit of the development of a similar peer mentor programme offered as a membership service, the management of which will be outsourced to a third party. The focus would be to move away from target groups and mental health, to transition points. IHE is also adapting the Train-the-Trainer Mental Health Literacy Training and developing a staff mentoring scheme, based on their involvement in this project.

Further information

Author: Lynn Blackadder

Author’s role: Many Hands Project Manager

See the project website

Video links:

Published 19 October 2023

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