A community development approach to supporting students’ emotional health

University of Birmingham’s project [email protected] funded by the Office for Students has taken a proactive community development approach to supporting student mental health across campus..

Prior to the pandemic, the [email protected] hub was based at the heart of the university’s campus in the social space four days a week. It offered a face-to-face drop-in service for students.

During a 40-50-minute intervention, students were provided with a listening ear and tools to support their emotional and mental health.

The project was focused on physical services and one-to-one interventions. Despite working with the wider student services division, it was limited in its partnership approach both internally and externally.

Pause’s main purpose throughout the project was to reach as many students in a face-to-face capacity as possible and this became more difficult after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.

In March 2020, within 10 days of the national lockdown, the Pause service mobilised a new telephone service to provide continuity of support.

During this period, it was clear the initial goals and key performance indicators of the service were no longer going to be reached on the same scale as initially intended.

Pause and the partnership took this as an opportunity to think creatively about how to engage with students during an uncertain period of time and offer more than a single medium of delivery.

A community development strategy was created, treating the university as a community of interest and engaging departments across the institution that linked with the wellbeing of students.

Often the university campus, given its vast size and over 45,000 population of staff and students, can be thought of as a town in itself. This strategy helped to establish some primary goals:

  • building partnerships
  • responding to the needs of the student community to improve quality of life
  • empowering both staff and students to think more creatively about mental health and wellbeing.

This case study will touch on just a few key examples of how a community development approach has benefited students. The first step was to establish what some of the key priorities were for students.

Early on during the coronavirus pandemic, the project identified the need to address challenges associated with isolating students who were unable to leave their accommodation, in particular international students.

[email protected] established partnerships with accommodation services, student mentors, the Guild of Students, the community living hub and the Birmingham International Academy (to name a few). It distributed digital resources, online workshops and group work activities created by the team.

Excellent sustainable links have now been established with these partners and representatives from these departments are involved in either project evaluation or governance.

Pause published data and service user feedback to wellbeing teams across the institution to promote a collaborative and community consensus of the key challenges faced by students. This has led to working in collaboration with sport and fitness where future projects will focus on eating issues among the student population.

In response to an increase in anxiety, homesickness and loneliness during the pandemic, effective partnerships were developed with the local historic house and gardens.

This allowed Pause to run wellbeing walks with students in the grounds to exercise and talk about any emotional challenges even during strict lockdown.

Several months later, the relationship has been further strengthened by the introduction of Pause’s wellbeing garden project that focuses on therapeutic horticulture and creates a safe space for one-to-one interventions and peer-to-peer support.

The project has received donations of plants and soil to help develop the space which has proven to be an incredible success, particularly with male students. As a result, Pause approached the Guild of Students to run a campaign from September to engage more students who identify as male in talking about mental health through participation in a practical activity.

Finally, Pause has ensured links at the University of Birmingham as well as externally with community-based charities and third sector organisations including Incredible Surplus that has been providing food and supplies to students in need through Pause.

Throughout the project, Pause has kept in very close contact with its student co-production group. By listening to their experiences of lockdown, Pause was able to create a video of the students’ lived experiences which incorporated helpful tools to reach a wider audience.

This was promoted across the university with support from the already-established networks. In order to give back to the student and staff community, Pause is now creating a training package in collaboration with Forward Thinking Birmingham NHS, which helps individuals understand the lived experiences of mental health within the context of higher education.

This will be delivered by the service towards the end of the funding period to ensure longevity and sustainability in terms of post-project benefits and legacy. The aim is to empower staff and students by increasing their skillset to feel as though they can bring up conversations about mental health. It is intended this will be shared with all higher education institutions in the region through regular meetings with universities in the West Midlands which have already been initiated. 

A resource package including videos, PDFs, images etc will sent out to wellbeing departments and the team is currently exploring how training can be delivered in-person to these institutions early 2022.

The links that have been established have resulted in partnerships with reciprocal benefits with students’ wellbeing at its core.

Using this community development approach has allowed Pause to become a well-known brand at the University of Birmingham, a trusted entity with expertise in student mental health. This has resulted in over 2,000 engagements with the service by students despite the majority of the project running throughout the pandemic.

The service has been able to demonstrate creativity and innovation when supporting students during the pandemic which presented an excellent opportunity for partners to learn from and replicate in the future.

Further details

Find out more about the project.

This case study was written by Drew Linforth (Interim Head of Wellbeing and Partnerships) in collaboration with Sandev Panaser (Project Officer) and Jane Thakoordin (Pause Service Manager).

Published 17 August 2021

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