Portsmouth recognised for student mental health excellence
The University of Portsmouth’s Welcome Ambassadors project has been recognised as an example of national good practice at the launch of a new task force, set up by Education Secretary Damian Hinds, to support students to deal with the challenges that starting university can include and to preserve their mental health.
On University Mental Health Day (Thursday 7 March), Mr Hinds announced that the new task force will look at how students moving from sixth-form or college to university can be better supported in their crucial first year, building on the work already underway across the sector to improve support for student mental health.
The network will firstly look at ‘what works’ to help students handle the challenges of moving into higher education and spread good practice from examples of initiatives, such as Portsmouth’s Welcome Ambassadors project.
Our idea was to do something a bit different from a traditional ‘buddy scheme’, focusing more on helping new students get a head start on making those good connections and networks that really help with settling in and feeling like you belong.
The project enlists current students to act as Welcome Ambassadors who lead online networks to ensure that every new student joining the University feels welcome and welcomed. Every new student is assigned to a ‘welcome group’ of around 15 other new students who they will meet as part of a closed online group during September and then with the option to meet up in person in the first few crucial weeks of term. The Welcome Ambassador team will also jointly run a social media activity designed to welcome all students.
Dr Denise Meyer, Head of Wellbeing of the University of Portsmouth Student Wellbeing Service, said: “Our idea was to do something a bit different from a traditional ‘buddy scheme’, focusing more on helping new students get a head start on making those good connections and networks that really help with settling in and feeling like you belong.
“Helping them to fulfil the motto, ‘Lead. Inspire. Connect.’ the Welcome Ambassadors’ training focuses on developing respectful and inclusive leadership skills. They inspire new students by sharing their own experiences of overcoming challenges in the transition to university.”
The Government task force was set up following work by the Department for Education to identify four key areas of risk that can affect the mental health of people going to university. These are:
- Independent living – including things like managing finances, having realistic expectations of student life, as well as alcohol and drugs misuse.
- Independent learning – helping students to engage with their course, cope with their workload and develop their own learning style and skills.
- Healthy relationships – supporting students with the skills to make positive friendships and engage with diverse groups of people. Other risks can include abusive partners, relationship breakdowns and conflict with others.
- Wellbeing – including loneliness and vulnerability to isolation, social media pressures and ‘perfectionism’. Students may also not know how to access support for their wellbeing.
- Members of the new task force – which will be known as the Education Transitions Network – will include leading sector groups such as UCAS, the National Union of Students, Student Minds, Universities UK, the Association of Colleges and the Office for Students.
The group will develop measures to help people make a smooth transition into higher education and help students maintain good mental health.
Mr Hinds said: “Going to university should be a positive, life-changing experience. Understandably for many young people, the idea of leaving home and starting to live independently can be exciting but also daunting.
“Juggling challenges like independent studying or managing finances can be hard enough, but with the added element being in a new place, surrounded by new people it can, for some, be overwhelming. We need to make sure students have the support they need to thrive at university and help these really be the best days of their life.
“I’m delighted to have the expertise of the sector backing this vision and joining this task force. Our universities are world-leading in so many areas and I want them to be the best for mental health support too. Pinpointing these key areas which can affect student mental health is essential to the progress we must make to ensure every student can flourish in higher education."