Mental Health Student Focus Group

Back in the summer, a group of students, the sabbatical officers and Helen Groenendaal (Head of Student Advisory & Wellbeing) met to discuss mental health at Royal Holloway and the quality of support provided by the University. Find out what was discussed and what action is being taken off the back of it.

Back in the summer, a group of students, the sabbatical officers and Helen Groenendaal (Head of Student Advisory & Wellbeing) met on MS Teams to discuss mental health at Royal Holloway and the quality of support provided by the University.

This meeting came about due to the prevalent theme of mental health issues throughout the Students' Union officer elections held back in March. It was obvious that there were strong feelings around such issues and more time and consideration were needed to delve deeper into the concerns presented. As a result, the SU decided to hold a mental health focus group, inviting all candidates who raised the topic of mental health in their manifestos and other interested students. This focus group was chaired by Henn Warwick, your SU President, as her previous role of VP Wellbeing & Diversity provided her with the relevant background context to lead this conversation about mental health provisions on campus. This stream of work has now been taken over by Alice Goode as the current VP Wellbeing & Diversity.

Furthermore, the SU had recently been reviewing data provided by the National Student Survey (NSS), which showed that only 32% of students felt that their mental health had been supported over the last academic year. This is obviously quite a worrying figure – one which highlights some of the main issues we wished to address: the way in which students engage with the Wellbeing services provided and the obvious disconnect between the two. It was clear that the visibility of the Wellbeing teams, the knowledge students have about the Wellbeing services, and the limited engagement from students were areas for concern and needed to be addressed. And that’s how we all ended up on Teams on a sunny afternoon in July taking a hard look at the Wellbeing services and delving into issues surrounding mental health. So, what was said?

Rebranding

Helen shared that the team is in the process of renaming the department, changing the name from ‘Student Advisory and Wellbeing’, to just, ‘Wellbeing’. The ‘Wellbeing’ umbrella encompasses all the different services that are available – each with its own rebrand, new name and new strapline. These changes were suggested in recognition of a need for increased clarity and accessibility to the services. Several people in the meeting detailed how they found it difficult to access the correct support service and were often passed around different services before receiving the right support. The lack of engagement was linked by the group to a lack of knowledge of the different services and what they could provide. Furthermore, it was raised that those who did access the services found they needed to be proactive and have the ability to persistently ask for the correct support – this comes from a place of privilege. Those who need the services most and are really struggling probably weren’t receiving all the support they could be. The name changes and rebranding are a direct attempt to eradicate this and instead make the support as easy to access as possible. For example, the new simplified one-stop email address wellbeing@royalholloway.ac.uk also combats these issues and acts as a triaging system so that Wellbeing staff can direct students to the most appropriate services as smoothly and as pain-free as possible.

Out of hours support

A lot of time was also spent discussing the provision of support outside of working hours and how best this could be tackled. Helen commented that they are trying to provide services during holidays, which was positively received by a postgraduate student, as the nature of their studies requires them to be on campus during holidays.

From her work as VP Wellbeing and Diversity last year, Henn successfully lobbied the College to provide more provisions for counselling support throughout the year. Previously, students were unable to access counselling support over the summer months. This was simply a resourcing issue as most counsellors working for the College are part-time and only during term-time. Whilst this wasn’t a major issue for some undergraduate students who commonly move back home during this time; it was a major concern for postgraduate students, care leavers and other minority groups who need access to the services throughout the year. This issue has now been resolved and the focus is now on 24-hour crisis support on campus.

The discussion went on to who responds during out-of-hours crisis situations. Many who attended the focus group were not aware of the difference between security and campus safety officers. The place of Hall Life officers at crisis situations sparked differing opinions – some said that as Hall Life officers are students, placing them in such distressing situations was a lot to ask of them. Others thought that having a fellow student present may be comforting alongside a campus safety officer. As a result, the topic of the training and support offered to security, campus safety and Hall Life teams was raised and discussed.

Following this meeting, Alice met with the Head of Security to determine how the security team was structured and who had received first aid and mental health first aid training. All security officers are trained to respond to any calls and have all gone through first aid training. Certain members of the security team are mental health first aid champions, and they deliver training to the other members of the officer team, so that they are all competent and confident in providing mental health support and if necessary, first aid.

We also examined the idea of working with an external 24-hour support service. Helen highlighted that Wellbeing services have a long-term plan to work with another service such as Big White Wall or similar to provide constant support. Helen mentioned that they had noticed a peak time during 5-11pm where students requested support. She asked the group how they felt about introducing a program like Safe Haven to Royal Holloway, where between those hours someone is on campus to address concerns and provide support. The group recognised that having this kind of support would potentially be useful, but were sceptical as to how effective this solution may be and queried uptake and engagement. One member highlighted how Wellbeing already has services in place with passionate people working in them. Therefore, it should be more about reinforcing what we already have, rather than starting something new which would take up a lot of time and resources which could be used somewhere else. Some solutions were suggested such as raising awareness and tackling the disconnect between students and the services by including mental health and wellbeing support training for academic reps or creating a new rep who would focus on mental health and wellbeing.

Personal Tutors

This led to the discussion of personal tutors and the quality of the support they give. It was recognised that it was extremely patchy, with some people reporting great experiences and some terrible experiences. One student raised an excellent point, saying that we should ensure senior personal tutors don't have tutees themselves so if there are issues or people who want to change tutors, there isn’t a conflict of interest. It was suggested that the organisation and running of personal tutors were passed over to the school’s admin department instead. The quality of communication between tutors and the college was also raised, as the tutors are often lacking important information, time and resources to be fully effective in this area.

One of Maia’s manifesto aims this year is to improve the personal tutoring system and as part of this, she will be reviewing the mental health training that personal tutors receive. She will also be representing students in the College’s review of the Personal Tutor system this year and her aim is to improve both staff and student engagement to ensure that wellbeing issues are picked up as soon as possible and acted upon.

Communication

A strong theme that was prevalent throughout the meeting was that communication from the Wellbeing services needs to be improved. Helen stated she was aware that as a team they could improve on communicating their successes and the positive experiences of students using their services. Those who have negative experiences are rightly very vocal, but there is no mention of the positive ones. Therefore a solution needs to be found to improve confidence in students engaging with the services. She highlighted how talking about seeking help for mental health issues is still kind of taboo, and consequently, they struggle with the visibility and transparency of the services. Consequently, students are unsure of which services are available and which ones are right for them. It was suggested that a potential drive/campaign for students who have had positive experiences with the Wellbeing services would be useful to provide testimonials and increase visibility and accessibility.

As a result of this discussion, Alice worked with the Wellbeing team to create a Wellbeing Handbook which will hopefully be used by the relevant staff and students as a signposting guide so that they know which service is the best to help that particular student and how to contact them. Alice has also been doing some work over the summer on Disability Determination Services (DDS) and is in the process of setting up a specific group to take these discussions further. She will keep you updated on her work as the year progresses.

Key Take-Aways

The positive energy at the end of the meeting was tangible. It was an honest, open and constructive meeting and we all felt that we had made some great progress and discussed some really important issues. There were a lot of suggestions, areas for action and changes as a result of the discussion which was really encouraging to see.

Hopefully, this meeting will be the first of many held between students, the officers and the Wellbeing services where we will work together closely to deliver the services and support that you wish to see.

Since the first meeting over the summer, the responsibility of the mental health focus groups has been transferred from Henn to Alice. If you have any queries or comments on this stream of work please feel free to contact her at vpwellbeingdiversity@su.rhul.ac.uk.