'For us, by us': The important role of student co-creation in developing mental health support

For University Mental Health Day, Amy Norton, Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion for the Office for Students (OfS), explains how understanding the needs of your own students and providing tailored support can help improve university and college student mental health support systems.

In the video above, student co-creators at London South Bank University (LSBU) share their experiences as part of one of the OfS funded mental health projects.

Video credit: Laura Jane Watson, third year film student at LSBU

'For us, by us.' This phrase has really stayed with me. Used by student co-creator Geraldine in the video above, it serves as a useful prompt for those developing mental health support of the importance of listening to, and centring, people with lived experience.

Across our work, the OfS encourages and supports universities and colleges to include co-creation with students when developing their mental health strategies and services. This University Mental Health Day, we are reflecting on some of the projects supported by the OfS and how they involve students in a meaningful way to help universities and colleges understand how best to provide targeted and appropriate mental health support.

What is the OfS doing?

The OfS helps universities and colleges to support student mental health by funding programmes, developing and sharing best practice and encouraging joint working with the NHS and other partners. Though universities and colleges are responsible for developing their own mental health policies and procedures, our regulation, collaboration and funding aim to find solutions to tackle poor mental health among students. We are currently funding multiple projects in this important area, including:

  • £3 million for a mental health funding competition (MHFC), supporting collaborative projects focused on students with characteristics identified as increasing the risk of poor mental health, and students who may experience barriers to accessing support due to their course, mode of study or other characteristics
  • a national effective practice mobilisation project led by the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO), including the creation of a central, online hub to share what works, why, in what context and for whom in relation to student mental health
  • an action learning project to encourage joint working between higher education and NHS services on student mental health by bringing together practitioners, student services, integrated care systems and mental health commissioners to identify effective practice, discuss common challenges and form strategic partnerships
  • the online platform Student Space, in collaboration with The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), which is developed by Student Minds and provides wellbeing information, student stories and a directory of services students can access at their own university or college.

Meeting the needs of specific groups of students

Today we have published case studies from two of the 18 ongoing projects funded through the MHFC initiative. These include LSBU's project which focuses on proactive and preventative interventions for black students and a project led by the University of Bradford aiming to address issues of stigma and other cultural barriers that might prevent South Asian students from engaging with mental health provision.

These case studies highlight the importance of universities and colleges understanding the needs of different student groups within their community, exploring the barriers and challenges faced by groups of students and providing mental health support that is appropriate and relevant to their cohort.

Student co-creation is central to all the projects that we have funded through the MHFC programme, and so far projects have demonstrated its importance, such as in ensuring students feel listened to and improving the relevance of support to specific student groups. The impact of this can mean that students feel empowered to engage in mental health provisions that feel relevant to their needs.

We spoke to some of the student co-creators involved in the MHFC about their experience as part of a student mental health project.

The University of Central Lancashire's project focuses on reducing mental health stigma for the LGBT+ community. Here some of the students involved in co-creation talk about their role and the impact of the project.

Engaging students in developing appropriate mental health support

Wavehill, the independent evaluators for the MHFC, have written a report reflecting on insights from project staff and students around effective practice for involving specific student groups in co-creation. The report recommended that in order to effectively engage students in co-creation opportunities, universities and colleges should:

  • be clear about confidentiality, both at the advertising stage and in subsequent sessions
  • work with students to agree on which staff are appropriate to include in co-creation activities, to ensure students feel able to speak openly and honestly about their experiences
  • consider where 'closed' approaches (opportunities open to only a specific student group) may be beneficial. When working with student groups who face specific concerns or barriers around mental health stigma these approaches may be preferred
  • ensure that opportunities are accessible to students with elevated levels of social anxiety, such as opportunities for individual contributions and a mixture of face-to-face, online and hybrid options
  • consider how mental health stigma can be mitigated in recruitment materials
  • provide financial incentives to ensure that students who would otherwise have to forgo paid work opportunities can participate in co-creation.

While getting students interested in participating in co-creation is important, ensuring that opportunities for co-creation are well-planned, meaningful and contribute to the effective delivery of these programmes is key.

How can co-creation be effectively delivered?

In their report, Wavehill suggested that in delivering their co-creation activities universities and colleges should:

  • involve staff from relevant backgrounds in the delivery and facilitation of co-creation activities
  • work with trusted individuals to deliver and advertise co-creation activities, such as relevant student representatives, societies or networks
  • embed student support in co-creation opportunities. This could be the first time a student comes forward with an issue or concern and is therefore a pivotal opportunity for an institution to link students up with relevant support
  • take proactive steps to boost the participation of male students, who are generally underrepresented in this work
  • ensure staff delivering co-creation have opportunities to debrief and access support.

This University Mental Health Day, we are encouraging universities and colleges to look at their existing student mental health support systems and consider where they may be able to include meaningful student co-creation opportunities throughout development, delivery and evaluation, and how they can better understand their student body and specific student groups' needs to best support the mental health of students.

Read more about our mental health funding competition See all of our work on student mental health


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Published 09 March 2023

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