How universities can engage students in strategic development to improve mental health for the university community
Student Minds, the UK’s student mental health charity, hosted a one-day conference and networking event earlier this year, which explored best practice in co-producing mental health strategies and services with students.
As set out by Student Minds: “Co-production is based on the principle that people who use, may use, or refer others to mental health services have valuable knowledge through experience and individual context. When we extend coproduction to create a whole university approach to mental health and wellbeing, students are listened to and empowered across all aspects of the university.”
Co-producing mental health strategies and services with students also forms one of the principles of good practice outlined in Student Minds’ University Mental Health Charter, a programme which Leeds Beckett signed up to last year.
Lucy MacDonald, LBSU Welfare and Community Officer and Sarah Tomlinson, Head of Student Wellbeing are both members of Leeds Beckett’s University Mental Health Charter project group and attended the conference.
What is your role at the university?
Sarah Tomlinson: As Head of Student Wellbeing, I’m responsible for our counselling and mental health service and for helping to develop a shared vision and strategic whole university approach to mental health that is embedded in day-to-day practice and culture. I’m responsible for building strong working relationships with health, social care and third sector organisations to help our students access a range of information and support for their mental health.
Lucy MacDonald: My role within the university is Welfare and Community Officer. This is a student elected role which is based in the Students’ Union. I work with students by helping them put on events and encouraging them to be part of the many activities and opportunities we provide in the Students’ Union. I also represent students on any Welfare or Community issue to ensure the student voice is heard at a higher level. I thoroughly love my job; it is so rewarding, and I plan to make positive change in Student Movement for a long time.
Why did you attend the conference?
ST: I’m a lead for three of the 18 themes within the Support domain of the University Mental Health Charter framework. This means that I’m focusing on the support that we provide in relation to student mental health and wellbeing; external partnerships and pathways; and how we manage risk in relation to student mental health. The Charter programme provides us with an opportunity to honestly evaluate our approach to mental health in a way that is supportive and collaborative.
Part of the programme involves completing a gap analysis where we examine how we are already working towards the principles of the Charter. This has highlighted a lot of good practice and some areas where there are gaps and where we could do better. One of these areas is student engagement in the services and activities we provide to support mental health. I went to the conference because I wanted to get some inspiration for increasing student engagement and to learn from the experience of others.
LM: From being the Student Lead in the Charter, I am co-leading two themes for the Charter, which focus on social integration and belonging and student voice and participation. These themes are predominantly student orientated and require lots of student representation and input. The conference taught me theories of co-production which I will apply to the themes when creating the improvement plans. The improvement plan is fundamentally an action plan that each theme requires following an analysis of the theme in relation to our institution.
As part of my involvement in the Charter, I am also running a student advisory group. This involves getting student feedback on current mental health practices in the university and observing where improvements can be made. I wanted to attend the conference to also get insight into how other student leads are running their student advisory groups.
What did you take from the conference in terms of what quality co-production with students should look like?
ST: Co-production is a particular approach to student engagement work. It’s a deeper, more meaningful level of engagement than consultation because it requires us to work with students as equal stakeholders. For co-production to have a positive impact, we value students as experts by experience and we aim to design services and interventions together. This requires open dialogue, inclusivity, and equality, where we recognise the power imbalance between students and university staff. We allow ourselves to be vulnerable and transparent so that we can work in partnership with students to find solutions to problems together. While this is complicated because there are lots of barriers in the way such as power dynamics, assumptions that services know best, or lack of time, we can develop the conditions for quality co-production.
LM: I learned so much information about co-creation from the conference and, for me, this way of production includes treating the student body as an equal partner. Co-creation can be used to create many different types of strategies but focusing specifically on student mental health production means that students’ lived experiences can be seen as a useful form of insight and knowledge. Co-production also means that the institution values students’ opinions and makes sure its services are fully suited to its own student body.
Moreover, I learned that co-creation is messy and, in some cases, a complex, lengthy task, but this is all part of the process that should be embraced. Solid foundations need to be in place for the co-creation methods to work and be effective. This means that using co-creation is not a quick solution. Power imbalances and structures need to be thought out and organised which can be daunting and time consuming. However, everyone involved is likely to be striving for the same end goal, to improve mental health, and this is important to remember.
What are the benefits of co-creation to the university?
ST: I think that when we work with students as active participants rather than passive recipients, it facilitates a positive, collaborative relationship and students are more likely to feel engaged with their university. Students (and colleagues) can develop confidence and a mindset that they can influence positive change which will stand them in good stead for the future. Working together towards shared outcomes, informed by experts through experience, means that strategies, policies and procedure are more likely to be successful because they are relevant. By working closely with students, we can increase the transparency of our organisation and this can help us to explore and manage expectations. The input of students into evaluating services or practices could mean that we gather more constructive opinions and feedback because students are likely to talk more openly to their peers without fear of negative consequences.
LM: Co-creation means that university support services are highly effective, and this means better outcomes are achieved for the students who use these services. Having happier, healthier students means they are more likely to enjoy their time at university, which impacts positively on their studies and overall wellbeing.
Co-creation activities may involve students talking about mental health experiences, which is likely to decrease the stigma around talking about your mental health and increase peer to peer support. Peer to peer support is very impactful as it contributes to students feeling part of a community and feeling able to speak to other students about their struggles.
What did you learn from the conference that will help you with the Charter programme?
ST: At the conference, we saw really good examples of how universities and Students’ Unions have overcome barriers to co-production. We heard how students have set up and run wellbeing initiatives and peer support and how students have led the evaluation of new mental health services in Manchester. A recurring theme at the conference was the importance of always going back to students and letting them know the outcome of their involvement so that they understand decision-making and their impact; and ensuring that student engagement at a meaningful level is included in strategies and policies.
LM: I learnt that co-creation is an important and rewarding process and I will use it when I create the improvement plan for the two themes I am leading on. This is a great chance to build co-creation into our plans and new strategies. I will also take away the importance of diversity when creating co-production consultation groups and working groups. This means that the mental health strategies produced from co-creation will be representational and specific to each marginalised group.
How could colleagues and students get involved to support you and the university with this work?
LM: Students can use our Student’s Union Have Your Say platform to raise issues and influence our priorities for improving the student experience. This is a platform I will also be using to influence the improvement plans on the University Mental Health Charter themes I am leading on.
As part of applying for the Charter Award, the Student Minds Assessment Team will visit the university to speak to staff and students, so it can better understand how the university’s approach works in context, its areas of strength, examples of good practice and the challenges that the university faces. We will need a student focus group to answer questions proposed by Student Minds. So, look out for this opportunity!
Finally, it is also useful to look at Student Minds Co-Production Guide which provides in-depth theory and further support on co-production.
If you would like to find out more about the University Mental Health Charter, please check out the new webpage.
Student Minds, Co-producing Mental Health Strategies with Students: A Guide for the Higher Education Sector. [online] Available at: https://www.studentminds.org.uk/co-productionguide.html