Partnering to transform student mental health

The pattern of universities seeking to establish partnerships that transform their research prospects, students’ experience or just stand out in a competitive market is well established. These are usually with either the private sector or other higher education institutions, but are there other partnership opportunities that can bring something to the sector?

Student Minds and Leeds University Union are launching a new partnership that highlights the untapped potential of higher education working with the charity sector. Student Minds has rapidly established itself as the voice of student mental health and the source of expertise for a sector seeking to respond to an exponential rise in demand for mental health support. LUU, also a charity, is one of the biggest and most respected students’ unions in the country with a specific “The Partnership” with its University.

Our new collaboration, which we think is sector leading, seeks to show the impact of establishing a different kind of strategic relationship.  Building on current work with the University of Leeds we will work together to influence local NHS provision, and co-produce wellbeing interventions with students on areas like eating difficulties, men’s mental health and international student provision. We will build capacity for peer support, and we will work with the University of Leeds to enhance the whole-university approach to mental health.  We believe that working together we can mark a step change in the way wellbeing and mental health in universities are co-produced and shaped.

Cohabiting for change

For Student Minds, the partnership is more than just a set of projects – it’s a location change. We have relocated our organisation and team from Oxford to Leeds. We believe that moving the charity to Leeds is core to our ambition to be revolutionary in the spheres of youth health, higher education, and charity workplace culture.

Our team has had the opportunity to visit hundreds of universities, students’ unions and other organisations over the last decade, and it is clear to us that ‘place’ and ‘space’ can be an important influence on an individual’s wellbeing, quality of life and success.  As we embark on some exciting major strategic change programmes – from growing our student-powered mental health movement to developing the University Mental Health Charter – this is a good time for us to be joining a vibrant, diverse and fun city like Leeds. It hosts NHS and Whitehall functions, and a thriving charity sector. Alongside that, house prices are around a fifth of the price improving long term prospects for employees. But most exciting of all, we’ll have numerous forward thinking universities and students’ unions on our doorstep or down the train tracks – and thanks to LUU, we’ll be based on campus.

Collaborating for strategic development

For LUU, collaborating with Student Minds supports the union’s Strategy 2018-2022 and reflects what students are asking LUU to deliver. 71% of Leeds students said that LUU offering help and support was important with many concerned about access to health services. One of LUU’s key strategic missions is “Empowering Positive Health & Wellbeing” which aims to help members reclaim their wellbeing as a positive area of their university life. Solely talking about ‘mental health’ can be unhelpful – students all too easily assume that that means mental-ill health. This can cause undue concern over normal feelings and equally be a barrier to those students who feel fine. So the union is expanding and developing wellbeing engagement and activity so that ‘looking after yourself’ becomes second nature, and reduces the need for support services in the future.

Our role is to help students find where they belong: whether that is one of its student run clubs and societies, or our new Global Programme which brings UK and international students together or through our social programme work in university residences. Our building’s foyer is a dedicated wellbeing space with help and support available to students as soon as they walk through our doors – with expert advisors supporting students’ financial, housing and academic issues. A new wellbeing drop-in service has been established in the union with colleagues in the university Student Counselling and Wellbeing Service.

The union’s partnership with the university is built on trust, respect and an understanding of our different roles. This means we can work together to provide seamless support for students. The partnership with Student Minds enables us to try new things, learn from expertise and advocate for our members on a national stage.

Seeking to transform

Many academics and students’ unions already hold positive working relationships with charities, sharing insights from research, funding arrangements, and steering one another about the best decisions for beneficiaries. Perhaps more universities and their unions could fulfil some of their ‘civic university’ requirements by offering space to aligned charities that need a home. LUU and Student Minds are hoping to transform the mental health landscape for students by collaborating to find new interventions and approaches, learning from one another, giving students a greater voice. Universities are here to help society overcome its biggest challenges and empower students to do the same – perhaps now is the time to seek to make real change together.

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