Anxiety. Depression. Suicide. Sadly, these are all common amongst students worldwide. Mental Health has always been a topic of conversation in the HE sector so it’s important that we have open discussions about what can be done and improved to support students beyond Mental Health Awareness Week.
At Unibuddy, we keep students at the heart of what we do and aim to support them from their early decision-making through to the end of their student journey. This means working together with higher ed institutions to provide the best possible recruitment journey and championing the power of peer-peer, real human connections.
Mental health issues in students can develop from a sense of feeling overwhelmed, anxious and alone. This is especially common in undergraduate students leaving home for the first time, settling into a new environment without any friends/family to support them. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), Suicide rates among students in England and Wales have increased over the past 10 years, with a shocking ‘1,330 students taking their own lives. 1,109 (83 percent)’ of those were sadly undergraduate students.
How does peer-to-peer support help?
Giving students the opportunity to speak with their peers before enrolling at university enables them to feel at ease and build rapport with other students with whom they may feel comfortable. They are able to get the answers to questions they can only get from those who have been through a similar experience. Thus creating a feeling of belonging and ease for when they eventually arrive at university.
20-year-old Laura Gailuma is a Unibuddy student ambassador at Leeds Beckett University, she explains how empowering it is to be able to help prospective students and put them at ease when making their decisions.
“I had someone ask me about the number of people in my class, they said they were a bit worried as they didn’t cope well with big lectures and loads of people in the room so I explained that we’re a small group of no more than 20 people and really friendly, so it’ll be easy to get to know everyone and make friends, we’re all really close and our lecturer knows us all by name. It was great to be able to share my experience with them and put them at ease.”
Speaking on the importance of ambassadors and mental health, Laura believes it’s crucial for students to have someone they can relate to.
“I definitely think having ambassadors helps with mental health as it’s so daunting to approach the Health and Wellbeing program at uni, but if you have a friend or an ambassador to speak to it’s so much easier to share. You know that everyone is going through similar things, so having another student that you can relate to makes a huge difference.”
Who takes responsibility?
In the UK each institution is responsible for “developing their own mental health policies.” As stated by The university watchdog, many have taken the initiative to create mentoring programs and offer activities to support student wellbeing. But how many actively encourage students to speak up when something is wrong? And how many students feel they can or should tell a member of staff if they are worried about their peers?
Once a student arrives on campus, they arrive as a legal ‘adult’ and due to Data Privacy and Protection laws, universities are not able to release student information – the same information that some parents believe could have saved lives.
“Having gone through all the different moments when we could have intervened to save our son’s life, it’s absolute nonsense that you would look at an issue and say: ‘You’re an adult therefore data privacy applies.’ Data privacy that may cause the vulnerable to lose their lives makes no sense at all.” Explains James Murray, father of 19-year-old Ben Murray—the 10th student to take his own life at Bristol University in 2018.
Could the university have done more? Did they see it coming? Should they have alerted parents/family? Tragedies like this always open up conversations of what could have been done and by whom, so it’s important to look at the sector as a whole and see what can be improved.
How can we ensure student well-being isn’t an afterthought?
Whether you’re a VP of student recruitment, a marketing manager at university, a lecturer, or a student ambassador, we encourage you to have open conversations that go beyond this week or beyond the next time a tragic story is in the paper.
Higher ed institutions are making a conscious effort to include mental health programs and support their students, but there is always room for improvement. Data protection laws for students have been revised with some universities adopting an opt-in strategy for students who wish for their parent/guardian to be reached if the university has a serious concern.
At Unibuddy, we do our best to support students throughout their higher ed journey and we hope to continue to be able to have open conversations about issues that affect students worldwide.
We’ve recently launched our UnibuddyAmbassador Lounge, a space for ambassadors from all universities around the world to come together and share their experiences, network and get to know each other. If you would like any of your ambassadors to join or if you’re a Unibuddy ambassador reading this, we’d love to see you there!