Paul Dodsley and Leah Wareham together form the hub of the student support service at Nottingham Trent University, where 30,000 students are studying at any one time. Paul describes the service as “prevention-led” – its aim is to take hold of opportunities to support students before they slip into difficulties, rather than afterwards. It has been running for about fifteen years and addresses a range of issues – sexual health, drug and alcohol, nutrition – but mental health awareness takes up approximately 70% of Paul’s time and all of Leah’s.
How can two people make a difference to such a large body of students? Paul and Leah have been extremely innovative in their approach and established an impressive variety of ways to enable them to punch far above their weight. Firstly, the service partners with specialist organisations to make its resources go further – the NHS, for example, and Student Minds. Some of these partner organisations themselves deliver services on the campus. Secondly, training is a big part of what Paul and Leah do. They train academics to recognise signs of distress in students and how to help; they train the student Mental Health Champions – other students who help in a myriad of ways – and offer Student Minds – Look Out For your Mates workshops to all students, which awards students with a nationally recognised certificate and, it is hoped, gives them essential life skills.
Leah’s specific role is to focus on communication and innovative ways of delivering the message about the types of support available. She says she tries to be as creative as possible. At the start of the first lockdown she posted “top tips” for preserving a healthy mental outlook on the Student Support Instagram. From these have progressed Instagram “takeovers” which talk about mental health and how the service can help; and also adaptation of formerly in-person activities to allow them to take place online, such as Time to Talk – a big virtual event which included input from many of the partner services involved. She has also organised virtual events of all kinds. Some are designed to work as occupational therapy – tie-dye tutorials on Instagram, for example, and cookery videos; life-drawing classes and yoga.
Leah (along with Zoe Mallett from the NTSU) is responsible for recruiting and training the Champions. There were only two when she joined the university staff less than three years ago, having just graduated in Photography; now around 400 have signed up. She says that the peer support they provide is invaluable: “It is really effective for students to get support from other students.” Some of the ways in which they deliver are “quite funky”. Many of them are very engaged and themselves think of all sorts of ways of contributing – for example, by creating podcasts. Some are gaining work experience. Together with Paul and Leah, their aim is to improve attitude to self-care: Paul mentioned each person having “a kitbag of support”. All the work they do is completely voluntary – though Paul says their commitment is so great that he would like to be able to find a way to pay them.
Asked what kinds of advice and support students need, and whether he feels they are more dependent than students used to be in the past, Paul is supportive of the present student generation. He says the level of support that is now available is brilliant when compared with, say, twenty years ago, when he was a student at NTU. University attendance has always brought its own challenges, even before the various lockdowns. To these have now been added more uncertainty regarding jobs for graduates and what will happen after they graduate. He believes that one of the key contributions of the service is to enable students to leave the university better equipped to deal with whatever life throws at them next.
The impact of the pandemic and consequent lockdowns has been significant. “Each lockdown has put an increased burden on mental health,” Paul says. “It’s difficult to know whether it’s worse for the first years, who have never known ‘normal’ university life, or for the second and third years, who have experienced what it was like and therefore know what they are missing, for some or all the remaining time they have left here.” Students are not used to isolation. In non-lockdown circumstances, they meet regularly and this gives them a sense of belonging, of being part of a community. Many students have welcomed the online support now on offer. Paul says he recently read a comment in a study issues by the Mental Health Foundation about the present situation which struck him as particularly apposite: “We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat.” The message he and Leah want to get across is, “If you’re struggling, that’s OK and perfectly understandable, but don’t suffer in silence.”
Asked what has made her most proud, Leah says it is the work that the champions have done. “They get the student voice across, especially now they have started becoming more involved in online activity through social media and our events that run peer-to-peer sessions online. The work they do is amazing and they keep up with it – it doesn’t dwindle over time.”
Asked how he sees the future, Paul says he thinks the service will keep on building up its identity and raising awareness of “what we do”. He would like to be able to focus more on promoting positive health and mental self-care. “And of course, we need more staff.” That is perhaps undeniable; but it’s also undeniably true that what Paul and Leah have achieved is also “amazing”.
[written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]