Supporting students
through the pandemic

Student mental health and wellbeing has been high on the agenda for some years now, with universities making strides into providing the health and wellbeing support that students need to be successful and enjoy their time at university. However, the last year has presented students with new and unimaginable challenges to overcome, writes Gemma Bradley.

The combination of isolation, adapting to remote learning, financial concerns and uncertainty around the future have caused unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety for young people. According to a survey conducted in June 2020 by mental health charity Mind, nearly three quarters (73%) of students said that their mental health declined during the first lockdown.

During the second national lockdown in November, the Office for National Statistics carried out a survey in England which found that 63% of students felt Covid-19 posed either a big or significant risk to their mental or physical health. And there was widespread dissatisfaction among those surveyed with regards to their social life and overall student experience.

Despite all of this, students at Derby have pulled together with their peers and university staff and academics to support each other through this difficult time and create news ways of working and learning.

Adapting support quickly and effectively

In March 2020, students were told to stay home, and the University moved swiftly to teaching online almost overnight. At the same time, the Student Wellbeing team were also given the challenging task of moving student services to a virtual delivery model to meet the changing needs of students.

“Over a weekend in late March, the student wellbeing team moved the entire service online, seamlessly providing a virtual service on the Monday morning,” says Kirsteen Coupar, Assistant Registrar - Student Services.

“Support for students from the team was consistent with no delay to wellbeing appointments, and discussions around mental health support and wellbeing continued remotely. Students presenting in crisis were supported remotely within the hour and risk was managed effectively and efficiently, liaising with internal and external services.

“Wellbeing appointments have continued to be delivered remotely since, and we have developed procedures for supporting students virtually, such as creating processes for managing safe and well checks, mental health assessments and responding to critical incidents.”

In addition to the Student Wellbeing team’s core services, the University’s Psychoeducation team created a series of resources and webinars aimed at helping students to maintain their wellbeing and learning during coronavirus, including workshops on getting the most out of their experience, staying motivated, dealing with procrastination and improving sleep.

“When it came to starting the new academic year with a blended learning approach, the team learned how to use new online platforms so they could deliver transition events, psychoeducation and induction to new students virtually. It is an incredible achievement for the whole team and colleagues who supported from across the institution.”

Jo Bishton

We know when people feel a sense of belonging, they perform better.

Dr Jo Bishton
Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDIW)

Embedding equality, diversity and inclusivity

Part of the University’s ongoing approach to wellbeing for students and staff, has been to embed equality, diversity and inclusivity across the institution. The team behind this has worked hard to provide an inclusive community of students, academics and professional services staff to enable everyone to thrive.

“We know when people feel a sense of belonging, they perform better,” says Dr Jo Bishton, Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDIW) at the University.

Through groups, such as staff networks, student societies, the Union of Students and the EDIW’s role models and allies programmes, staff and students are accessing support for their wellbeing.

“We wanted to try and remove some of the stigma around men’s mental health” continues Jo. “Some of our male staff came forward as role models and shared their mental health experiences in our weekly internal communications newsletter and the response from staff was really positive. We have now been approached about setting up a men's wellbeing network and we’re working on this as a result.”

The EDIW team’s work is about changing attitudes and behaviours that ultimately lead to cultural change. A large part of the way they do this is through achieving charter marks.

“These marks are more than just a ‘nice to have’,” says Jo. “They're actually very useful at getting underneath the skin of the organisation and who we really are to help us set the agenda and the pace around some of the work that we want to do. They show us where we've got good practice to share wider or where we need to introduce interventions.

“We have recently submitted our application for the Athena Swan Charter through Advanced HE, which focuses on gender equality. By going through this process we have really got to know ourselves better, we can see where our staff are distributed and where we have got under-representation to address. Some changes have already come about, such as anonymous shortlisting in recruitment. That’s what doing something like Athena Swan can cause. The impact is great.”

 Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge sitting down to speak to staff and students about mental health at the University of Derby
Credit: Richard Richards

A royal visit

In October, the global spotlight was shone on the University’s range of health and wellbeing services and interventions when Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge, visited the University to explore the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on students.

During her visit, the Duchess met with Vice-Chancellor Professor Kathryn Mitchell DL, Gareth Hughes, the University’s Psychotherapist Research Lead, students from the University and Rosie Tressler OBE, CEO of Student Minds, the UK’s student mental health charity.

The Duchess was able to hear what impact the pandemic was having on students directly and explore how the University and national organisations, like Student Minds, are supporting students.

Speaking on the day, Gareth, who is also a Clinical Lead for Student Minds, said: “Student mental health is a significant issue in higher education and the University of Derby is proud of its reputation as being at the forefront of supporting and improving student mental health.

“We have worked hard to develop our whole university approach, taking proactive steps to develop students’ ability to maintain and improve their own wellbeing and creating a learning environment that is inclusive and supportive for our students.”

Supporting national initiatives

In addition to the work the University has done for its own students, it has been involved in national initiatives to improve the mental health of students across the sector.

The University was selected as the first pilot site for Student Minds’ Mental Health Charter in recognition of the high level of mental health support provided to its students.

The charter scheme, which is in development, provides a set of principles to support universities in making mental health a university-wide priority and will recognise and reward universities that promote good mental health and demonstrate good practice.

The University’s Student Services team led the Award Audit for the pilot and demonstrated excellent practice in three charter dimensions, good practice in 11 charter dimensions and emerging good practice in a further three charter dimensions. The audit team was impressed by Derby’s whole university approach and the University has only one area to address to achieve the award.

students chatting over coffee

The roadmap to recovery

Universities have overcome enormous challenges in response to Covid-19 and the changes it has made to normal university life. At Derby, the health and wellbeing of staff, students and the communities surrounding them has been the primary concern throughout the pandemic and this will continue as the University begins to plan for the next phase.

“There is growing evidence that many students have had a difficult time this year and that this is having a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing,” adds Gareth. “We need to think about how we support these students now and over the coming year.

“As we are likely to be living with uncertainty for some time, we need to help students by providing as much clarity and certainty as we can. We need to support them in how they can focus on what they can control and influence. It's also important to acknowledge and normalise what they are experiencing. Those students who are feeling more down or more stressed are responding normally to a very abnormal situation.”

If you or someone you know would like to find out more about the support offered by Student Minds, you can visit their website.


two students chatting over a coffee

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