Mental health in young people has been a growing issue for some time and many stories about the mental health of students have been featured in the news over the past two years. Universities are coming under increasing pressure to address student wellbeing and tackle the stigma around poor mental health.
In December 2018 we opened the Bristol SU Living Room, the first space of its kind in a Higher Education setting and part of a global movement of “Public Living Rooms” inspired by a charity called Camerados. The Living Room is a space where students can relax, unwind, meet new people and try new things. It aims to embody a proactive “no fixing” approach to wellbeing that fosters good mental health by emphasising the power of human connection.
We’ve seen huge successes in our first 8 operational months, in improving the sense of community on campus, driving satisfaction and reducing isolation. We’re now working on a toolkit with Camerados to go out to other HE institutions.
In 2015, along with 13 other Students’ Unions, Bristol SU took part in some mental health research conducted by Alterline titled “Being Well, Doing Well”. The study showed that loneliness and isolation are major issues for students at university. At Bristol, 35% of students reported that they rarely or never feel relaxed and 1 in 4 students said that they are regularly stressed about isolation. It was clear that we needed to address these statistics and that a change in approach was required, in order to do so.
That’s when we came across Camerados – a movement of people who think and act differently simply because of the belief that we should look out for one another. Camerados believe that friends and purpose can get us through tough times, which is why they’ve created Public Living Rooms all over the world as spaces for people to connect and look out for each other.
We created the Bristol SU Living Room on these principles: as a space to relax, feel part of a wider community, help others and be helped. There’s free tea and coffee, space to meet friends and self-directed relaxation activities such as books and games. We’ve worked with many different student groups and individuals to put together a student-led programme of activities and make the space feel student-owned.
The programme is based around The Five Ways to Wellbeing, which were first summed up by the New Economics Foundation in 2008 as a set of actions people could use to improve their mental health and wellbeing. We’ve hosted knitting workshops, an “Ask an LGBT Person” stall, workshops on non-violent direct action and celebrated University Mental Health Day.
A small sample of feedback collected between December and April showed that of participants in activities, 80% of them strongly agree the session helped them to meet new people, 73% strongly agree the session improved their sense of community and 87% strongly agree the session improved their positive wellbeing. The programme of activity has made the Living Room a buzzing community and social hub, where students come on good days and bad.
300 students attended the launch of the Bristol SU Living Room and by February, after just 9 operational weeks, there were an average of 700 visitors per day and regularly over 100 people in the space at lunchtimes. The results of Bristol SU’s Alterline Student Pulse Survey in April revealed that 63% of students had heard of the space and of those who had used it 80% were satisfied with it, making it Bristol SU’s second highest scoring service in terms of satisfaction after just four months.
Feedback from students has been that the Living Room is the type of space they have been asking for for years. One student said “I think it’s an amazing idea and really what this university needs! I really think it will help a lot of people without them even knowing. I think it will really increase the sense of community within the uni!”. Another student commented on how it has fulfilled a need in their lives beyond their academic experience: “This place is so cheerful and peaceful. Thank you – you’ve given me a living room when I don’t have one at uni”.
The project has taught us about a new way proactive of approaching student mental health that focuses on promoting positive mental health. Everybody has mental health that will fluctuate throughout their lives, but not every person will need to access formal services or requires a diagnosis. Therefore, creating spaces like these that compliment more structured mental health services – where students can flourish, form mutually supportive connections and feel part of a community that means something to them – is crucial.