Here’s how to make a positive change on campus mental health

Three of the first universities to join the University Mental Health Charter Programme share their experiences of working towards a whole-university approach to mental health.

Steve West is vice chancellor of the University of the West of England


Pamela Gillies is Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Glasgow Caledonian University


Joy Whyte is Strategic Director, Education and Students at King's College London 


Juliet Foster is Dean of Education, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience King's College London

Student Minds has announced the first universities to join our University Mental Health Charter Programme.

It’s a practice-sharing network of universities committed to achieving a whole-university approach to mental health and wellbeing.

Here we’ve invited a range of universities who have joined the programme to share their recent work in this space and what they hope to achieve with us over the next few years.

Steve West, UWE Bristol: Navigating the pandemic

When UWE Bristol launched our Mental Wealth First Strategy in Spring 2018, we could not have anticipated how this work would be tested by a global pandemic and the mental health challenges it would create. Our ambitious university-wide strategy had already seen us deliver a range of interventions as part of a holistic approach to mental health and wellbeing.

Examples include a learner analytics tool to strengthen how we identify those who may be in need, an enhanced range of mental health provision including 24/7 support and online triage, social prescribing which encourages students to access non-clinical activities such as music to support their mental wellbeing, improved data sharing to support a more integrated campus, and awareness raising campaigns such as the #LetsTalkNow podcast.

This gave us a strong platform when the pandemic hit, but it was essential to think carefully about how we prevent mental ill health and promote healthy behaviours in this changed context, along with ensuring support continues to be available when our students and staff need it.

Planning our response to the pandemic gave us the opportunity to increase our focus on staff wellbeing. We launched our Covid Care Survey, to check in with staff at regular points. Through these insights, we recognised the need to focus on reassuring and reminding staff of the support available to them, adapted well being content and guides, provided resilience workshops and created connection through poetry workshops, an online comedy night, ‘Thank You Thursday’ and a parents’ network forum to support home learning. Our recent internal audit by PwC on staff wellbeing highlighted how our ‘well-known’ wellbeing strategy continues to shape our culture across our university community.

The work we have done to establish holistic and integrated ways of working across our internal teams, with clear Senior Management endorsement, meant that we were able to pivot our focus and support effectively to match the demands of our changed circumstances. An example of this working in practice was the coming together of academic and professional service teams to create Block Zero.

Recognising that students may be anxious about the disruption to their learning experience, Block Zero was designed to make sure students had an inspiring start to their university studies by creating an exciting way to connect students to each other, programme teams and the wider university in a low risk environment. Centred on the themes of confidence, momentum, community, identity, friendship and transition, students are free to experiment with new technologies, enhance their digital capabilities and build the confidence to succeed, whether online or in person. More than 2400 students provided feedback and indicated that they felt better prepared, were optimistic about the year ahead, had the sense of belonging and community that is so important to mental health, and they understood the support and services available to them.

The work started in response to the pandemic has had such positive impact for our university community that we will continue to refine and enhance these initiatives through our recovery and beyond, progressing our ambitious Transforming Futures Health and Wellbeing Strategy 2030 and aligning to the evidence-informed Universities Mental Health Charter to ensure focus and impact.

Making health-promotion a priority is essential if universities are to empower our people to thrive and flourish and shape the health and sustainability of future communities. The University Mental Health Charter Programme provides an excellent means to share best practice and enable cultural change across the higher education sector – so all our staff and students have the best opportunity to reach their full potential and shape the world around them for the better. Change starts here.

‌Pamela Gillies, Glasgow Caledonian University: Experiences from the pilot

In 2020, Glasgow Caledonian University participated in the pilot of the University Mental Health Charter Programme. This is because we see staff and student mental health and wellbeing as a core driver of university performance. We are fundamentally committed to crafting a holistic approach to mental health and wellbeing in our organisation as an important part of creating a fulfilling experience for staff, a life enhancing experience for our students and for promoting institutional resilience.

Being involved in the pilot of the Charter Award provided us with an invaluable opportunity to assess our progress against the University Mental Health Charter and the UUK Step Change framework. The process is underpinned and evaluated by literature and evidence, alongside feedback and support from sector experts. We were keen to be challenged and receive feedback from the assessment team, which has enabled us to reflect on our current practices and to drive continuous enhancement and innovation.

Through the pilot, we also brought together staff and students from across the institution to take part in a self-assessment. Together, we had the time and space to reflect on where we are now and where we want to be. In doing so, we helped raise awareness and ownership of the issues, share and learn from good practice to enhance our whole-university approach.

Engagement with the Charter signalled to our staff, students, stakeholders and partners the university’s authentic commitment to prioritising mental health and wellbeing. Evidence demonstrates that visible commitment is important to establishing a shared culture that supports change and individual wellbeing. In our context, communicating about our engagement in the Charter increased the profile of our mental health and wellbeing work and raised general awareness of the importance of the agenda across the university and our partners.

Participation in the University Mental Health Charter led directly to a range of actions to enhance our work in this area. Most notably, we have established a new clinical lead for our Counselling team to continue to enhance service quality. We have expanded our wellbeing service provision in a hub and spoke model so that our advisers work more closely with our academic schools.

We have implemented better provision of support for staff in remote contexts so that they can better identify and support students in distress. The improvement report we received from the assessment team will continue to shape our thinking and practice around this work in future years, and we have incorporated further recommendations into our 2025 Student Mental Health Action Plan.

Juliet Foster and Joy Whyte, KCL: Improving practice through collaboration and co-production

King’s has demonstrated an ongoing commitment to the whole-university approach since we launched our first Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategic Plan in 2018 with the support of senior leadership and our Students’ Union. We have made great progress in identifying provision across the university, enhancing specialist support and strengthening our collaborative working to bring key stakeholders together to embed positive wellbeing as a fundamental ethos.

Since then, the University Mental Health Charter has been instrumental in allowing us to connect with members of our communities. Through our King’s 100 Staff and King’s 100 Student initiatives, we have discussed the whole-university approach and used the Charter’s themes to structure breakout discussions to identify areas of good practice and areas for improvement.

As part of these discussions, students were keen to see greater integration of wellbeing support within the academic experience at faculty-level. In March 2021, we established a new team of Faculty Wellbeing and Welfare Advisors. Using a hub and spoke model, the new team of advisors who joined us in July will work closely with our colleagues in Student Services and Personal Tutors across the university to ensure students are equipped with the knowledge and support they need to be successful at King’s. They will also be valuable in helping us to understand the specific mental health needs of cohorts of students, as well as supporting students from underrepresented backgrounds.

We are keen to continue these listening campaigns and co-production opportunities with staff and students, and use them as a springboard to create the culture change needed to ensure mental health is central to how we work as a university. Our new President and Principal, Professor Shitij Kapur has an academic background in psychiatry and neuroscience and is a champion of this approach. During his first weeks at King’s, he has listened to King’s staff and students to learn from their experiences. He is keen for us to partner with other institutions to share best practice and discuss innovative approaches to common challenges we all face in the sector.

The Charter Programme will provide space for us to think strategically and collaborate with other universities to create change in a meaningful and long lasting way. We are also excited by the opportunity the Charter presents to further develop discussions on ways to best measure student wellbeing and effectively evaluate interventions. This has to be a collaborative process across the sector. We believe that the Charter Programme will allow us to build on the positive work being undertaken by the Student Mental Health Research Network (SMaRteN) which is based at King’s and provide greater opportunities for links between research and practice.

Applications to the University Mental Health Charter Programme are open until 1st September 2021.

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