I was recently engaged in a discussion on whether the university community might play a positive role in mental health when a contribution from a UK postgraduate startled me.
There is no community at university. We are individuals. We all compete for the same rewards and we can’t all share. I don’t care about my neighbour, the system doesn’t want me to.
His reluctance to consider the potential of the community in this context is unsurprising. In many ways, universities currently provide a service or product that is highly individualised. From an early age students are increasingly focused on a market exchange for credentials which they regard as a competitive process. There are only so many 2.1s and only so many graduate-level jobs worthy of the investment, so a contest ensues. Neighbourliness is unlikely to flourish in this scenario. Then when problems arise, the institutional response tends to focus on the individual. In the case of mental health, the standard institutional response is to offer a one-on-one fix that tries to contain the problem in the short term.
Reimagining residential life
In recent years, more progressive student service departments and student unions have engaged in preventative measures. Mindfulness interventions are one recent manifestation of a trend to offer positive activities like yoga and exercise classes, and to develop buddy or mentoring programmes. But, even these measures reflect a paradigm that positions the individual as the recipient of a service, rather than as a member of a community that might collectively seek to address these problems and challenges. As a sector we appear to be reluctant to explore the ways in which collective action between students, or between students and staff, might be the source of innovation in this realm.
This apparent blind spot is odd because in the UK particularly, a key reason we have residential campuses is to unlock the potential that relationships can have on life and learning. Residential institutional life was not conceived as a form of commercial “minding” for late-adolescents – it was designed to facilitate communal, informal relationships, of working shoulder to shoulder with academic staff, and of being empowered through identification with a community of scholars. We persist with attempts to encourage students to associate through the activism and voluntarism of students’ unions, but these are usually cases of groups organising around enthusiasms, rather than more creative attempts to explore collective approaches to the challenge of how to live and work successfully with others.
In other sectors, the emphasis is changing. Increasingly, professionals in social work, allied health practitioners and neighbourhood workers are putting aside debates about medical and social models of delivery, and are thinking instead about the power of communities to act, to serve and to support.
The community development approach has been in existence for decades, but it offers an alternative way of thinking about and delivering services. Rather than focus on the individual, this approach considers how groups can come together, build capital and more effectively support each other. While in HE we think about how to train individuals to cope with adversity, in other sectors the interest is in developing resilient communities, where people are more connected, more confident, and more pre-disposed to helping each other.
The argument goes that resilient communities are those where social bonds are stronger; where communal services are built around the strengths of those in a locality; where peer support is valued and encouraged; and where the professionals who deliver services work directly with their clients to design, create and deliver interventions. There is a shift towards asset-based community development, where the emphasis is on long-term, sustainable, and innovative solutions. Positive mental health prospers in communities that demonstrate this kind of empowerment, enterprise and resilience. Underlying this approach are values and ideals that are also reflected in contemporary manifestations of localism, from the flatpack democrats of Frome to the participatory citizens of Barking and Dagenham. In all of these settings, local solutions simultaneously build upon and develop social capital.
These alternatives give an indication of what might be possible if we were to open ourselves up to new ways of thinking and collaborating. Communities across the country are creating new solutions to environmental challenges – from the management of food waste, to the promotion of behavioural change programmes and new approaches to recycling. Others are experimenting with food production, supply and consumption – the bulk buying of food ingredients, shared storage, batch cooking and communal meals, even if pursued on a very occasional basis, could work very easily in university settings and would have obvious communal, health and educational benefits.
Increasingly, resilient communities are maximising the utility of their assets by engaging in “social prescribing”, the idea that health professionals, and those in allied sectors, can refer people for physical, social or cultural activities. These referrals can be for pursuits as diverse as art classes, free play, personal training, or health walks. Positive mental health benefits can accrue as individuals use these settings to overcome isolation or alienation, or to gain purpose or structure in their lives. Universities are replete with such opportunities, and while some have experimented with prescription for exercise, the potential to refer individuals into other positive and constructive activities is huge.
Time to refocus
For some time now, halls of residence have been designed to generate income for universities and developers. Incorporating additional social or communal space into these facilities has been resisted on commercial grounds and the original purposes of a residential education long forgotten. Many disciplines and subjects are dominated by particular ways of thinking about the economy that obscure our view of how collectives might become productive, or of how alternative economies might be developed and tested. And assessment regimes pit student against student and distract us all from what might represent genuine education.
But universities remain places where alternatives can be explored. All of the examples of community empowerment that I’ve cited demonstrate creative problem solving. Groups of people have collaborated to create and design solutions to problems that are global in nature but which have local manifestations, engaging in issues in which they have a stake and which they have the power to address.
Universities should find ways to encourage students to take a new approach to their environment and to their relationships, using their imagination to identify forms of collaboration that will help us all in the future.