It’s time SUs talked mental health and money on campus

Matt Wall Director of Partnerships at native

The cost of living crisis is permeating all aspects of the UK economy and felt evermore strongly within the higher education sector.

Students are feeling the pinch, more than most, as their living costs have risen 5x more than their funding.

Both the core academic and wider social student experience as we know it is threatened and students’ mental health is at risk.

There are countless examples of SUs working tirelessly to mitigate the effects of the cost of living crisis, including:

  • Lobbying government and local MPs,
  • Working with institutions to ensure support is provided,
  • Setting up provisions for students in need: from food banks to free meal kits, cutting the cost of events to increasing funding for student groups.

Another powerful way to support students, that native and Mental Health UK are championing, is to work towards removing the stigma around money and its knock on effects on mental health – and open up everyday communication channels on campus.

Spending habits and income sources are changing

Through primary research, and the synthesis of secondary research from others in the sector, it’s clear that students have had to adapt their behaviours that are fundamental to the student experience. Namely, the way they spend their money is changing:

  • 76 per cent are cutting back on non-essentials (native)
  • 67 per cent are looking for cheaper alternatives to products (native)
  • 42 per cent are travelling less (NUS)

There’s no question that the university experience is expensive for every student – the cost of living crisis has made this even worse. In 2021, those in university accommodation and on the maximum student finance allowance were left with just £29.30 a week to live. With student loans not rising at the rate of inflation, this years’ students have even less left over to live on. More so than ever before, students are looking for ways to top up their bank balances:

  • 62 per cent are in part time work (Save the Student)
  • 37 per cent are dipping into existing savings (native)
  • 27 per cent are seeking financial support from friends and family (native)

This is even worse for some of our most vulnerable students often laden with additional expenditure and less time on their hands – see here the fantastic piece on how the housing crisis has the potential to fail estranged students. These knock-on effects are widening the gap between students’ “have” and “have not go”’ strong support structures.

This year, NUS has reported that 92 per cent of students’ mental health has been impacted by the cost of living crisis. It’s no surprise, really. Laura Peters, Head of Mental Health and Money Advice says that “Mental health and money go hand in hand. It’s estimated that 50 percent of people in debt also experience mental health problems – and one in five people experiencing a mental health problem also experience money issues.”

With such strong links between poor mental health and money issues, we must prioritise taking action. SUs are at the heart of the student experience and are best placed to support student members. Students are in agreement, they trust their SU to deliver financial and mental wellbeing advice.

Despite this, native’s recent survey of 1,433 students revealed just 19 per cent are currently accessing this advice from their SU. From our detailed conversations with SUs, it seems many advice centres are oversubscribed and lacking resources to help students one on one. So, how do we solve this issue? How can we campaign to support students better?

With differing levels of need across the student body, getting in early and working to remove the stigma associated with mental health problems and money issues can have a marked improvement on student wellbeing.

Removing stigma

As a sector, we need to take mental health and money out of the advice centre initially, to ensure we can support all, catch cases earlier and save the influx of casework. Making your campus environment an open, safe place to talk about mental health and money – and encouraging these conversations is a positive step towards removing perceived stigma, and mitigating possible negative impacts of the cost of living crisis. Mental Health UK’s conversation guide includes three phases to opening up conversations about mental health and money:

  1. Begin by myth busting – For example, working isn’t the only way to increase income. Signpost hardship funds and benefit entitlements. Encouraging students to track spending and budget are great ways to help them handle debt and increase savings.
  2. Identify the warning signs and start the conversation – It’s impossible for SU teams to strike up a one on one conversation with each and every student, but you can use your marketing channels to connect with students on campus and online. Through wide reaching messaging, boost confidence, share practical tips and avoid catastrophizing.
  3. Share stories and signpost – With permission, sharing real world stories from your student members can help others that might be struggling in silence.

Taking these positive steps will help to support students earlier and save complicated interconnected case work with SU advice services and university wellbeing services. And removing stigma will help to foster a stronger sense of community and belonging within both the institution and SU. This will provide quantifiable benefits for all – and long lasting impact across this generation of students.

Building on the work that SUs are already doing in this area and after having listened to SUs over the summer, the team at native have partnered with Mental Health UK to empower SUs with more tools and content to be able to support their students.

For a more in depth look at how to encourage conversations about mental health and money on campus, join native and Mental Health UK on the 22nd November for a workshop between 12-1pm.

Laura Peters, Head of the Mental Health and Money Advice service at Mental Health UK said “We’re delighted to partner with native on this initiative to help support more students with their mental health. Getting students talking about mental health and money worries is a great starting point to help break down stereotypes and improve well being across campus”.

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