“Styling a solution”: Student housing and the mental health crisis

“Styling a solution”: Student housing and the mental health crisis
In the UK alone, there were 95 recorded student suicides in the 12 months leading up to July 2017. Source: 胡 卓亨/Unsplash

“Can I just ask one thing?” said Bobbi Hartshorne as our conversation drew to a close.

“Of course!” I replied, heartened by the depth and positivity of the things we’d discussed.

“The scale and size of the problem has been spoken about for a very long time, and I really think we need to start talking about the scale and style of the solution,” she said.

“If we can start to shift the trend towards action, rather than just wallowing in the challenge, I truly believe we’ll start to drive change.”

Having worked in the sector for almost four years, coming straight out of university before that, I knew exactly where she was coming from. A Google search of the words ‘Student Mental Health Crisis’ brings up 63,700,000 results. Students struggle with stress and depression, writes one headline; The declining state of student mental health, says another; Huge rise in students…seeking mental health support, writes one more.

It all seems very reactionary when what this crisis really needs is for us to be proactive.

That’s what peaked my interest in Global Student Accommodation (GSA) – a student accommodation provider inspired by the business models of hotel industry giants. GSA’s management team started out in 1991 with just over 100 beds in the UK. GSA has since grown to operate in eight countries, 33 cities and across two regions – EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) and APAC (Asia-Pacific).

I wanted to speak to Bobbi, Head of Student Wellbeing at Global Student Accommodation (GSA), not just because she was passionate and incredibly empathic, but I also got the feeling she was a real go-getter. Why sit around and wait when you could make a difference now?

Reimagining the role of student housing

“Universities, for years and years, have been doing great work in student support,” she explained.

“They’ve got some great programmes, they’ve built on their experience over the years, and this is the same globally. You only need to do some pretty basic research to see that the themes student services address in England are the exact themes that student services address in India, China, Japan and anywhere else.”

One of the biggest problems faced by university support services is actually getting students to turn up. Typically, sessions take place on an extra-curricular basis, meaning learners have to wait around until 6 or 7 o’clock if they want to take part.

“Well by that time, students are tired. They want to go home, they want their dinner – especially in cold countries where it’s getting dark and dreary,” said Bobbi.

“So they walk off-campus and trying to get them back on for a 7 o’clock workshop is really challenging.”

That’s what gave Bobbi and the GSA team their ‘lightbulb’ moment: GSA has the unique position of offering wellbeing services to students regardless of what university they attend, so why not offer students these services from the comfort of their homes?

Bobbi told me she thought two things about student accommodation had previously been overlooked: firstly, the teams in student housing see these students every day, even multiple times a day, getting to know them on a personal level.

“The relationships staff and students have in the accommodation setting is considerably richer and more human than the teacher/advisor to student relationship that student services have,” said Bobbi. “Immediately, you’ve broken down barriers and are essentially operating on a peer-to-peer level.

“It’s the difference between me wanting to speak to you about your mental health in a classroom, or me sitting down and having a cup of tea in your front room. In which setting are you likely to be more open to talking about it?”

MADISON, WI -5 APR 2017- Signs advertising mental health awareness and support on the campus of the University of Wisconsin Madison (UW), a major public research university in the US. Source: Shutterstock

The second thing Bobbi pointed out was that student buildings tend to have lots of communal space. “That’s what made me think we’ve got a massively underused resource here, in both our staff and our spaces, and just the very nature of what a home is,” she said.

The Student Wellbeing Framework

One of GSA’s more recent achievements lies in the creation of the Student Wellbeing Framework.

“The student wellbeing framework is intentionally designed not to be rocket science,” Bobbi explained.

This award-winning initiative strives to help students in need, hoping to identify mental health and wellbeing issues long before young learners risk becoming another tragic statistic. Thirty-thousand students now have access to this nine-pillar framework, which seeks to tackle the spiritual, mindful and cultural; social, physical and environmental; academic, career and financial elements that impact student mental health.

GSA has developed detailed activity schedules to support these pillars, designed to:

  • Raise awareness of potential catalysts for stress
  • Develop the skills and resilience needed to overcome these triggers
  • Strengthen student communities
  • Provide quality in-residence services to support students through vulnerable transitions in their lives

The schedule is run by in-house Residential Assistants (RAs) – actual students who live alongside those seeking support.

Isolation is one issue that negatively impacts student health. Source: Shutterstock

“This was another really important thing about the programme,” said Bobbi. “It wasn’t supposed to be run by authority figures.”

GSA is currently trying to perfect the RAs’ ability to connect with Students’ Unions (SUs) – something they struggled to do before the Framework was introduced.

“Because they are students, they can go to the SU and say, ‘Look guys, I’m looking to address sexual consent, hydration, or sleep patterns with students who live in my building. Have you got any resources that could help us out?’, because then, the messaging is consistent both on-campus and at home.”

But the student-run programme offers a host of other benefits. Firstly, the activities being planned are at the right level; they are engaging, relevant, and they give students a voice in a space they might otherwise not have felt heard. On top of this, the RAs themselves receive invaluable working experience, gaining employment and earning a wage for something that’s not only meaningful, but potentially life-saving.

It’s because of this that GSA won the Student Employment Award from Aston University for their employment of a student last year. They felt the experience one young man was having with GSA was far richer and more fulfilling than just earning a few quid.

But these services have never traditionally been offered within student housing. At least, certainly not with this level of depth or consistency. Now, the trick is to inspire a mentality shift for what student residents expect from their accommodation.

“We’re having to educate our students a little bit,” added Bobbi. “I think that’s in terms of getting them to engage with activities but it goes much deeper than that, because what our staff are able to do by seeing people day in, day out, is notice whether a student starts to look tired or dishevelled, isn’t washing or is talking differently, or is disengaging. These are real red alert signs that our teams are designed to identify and respond to.”

Awareness is empowering. Though the RAs and residential staff are by no means trained counsellors, they can signpost a student in need towards a qualified professional. Their knowledge and experience allow them to act before it’s too late.

Student accommodation providers: catalysts for change

It only takes a glance at global statistics to see that something has got to give.

In recent years, depression and anxiety have afflicted college students at alarming rates. It’s an issue that has devastating effects – in the UK alone, there were 95 recorded student suicides in the 12 months leading up to July 2017. During this period, there were more than two million students at university in England or Wales, and the suicide rate was 4.7 deaths per 100,000 students.

But this is a global pandemic that is by no means exclusive to the UK. “Countries like New Zealand, the Republic of Ireland, Lithuania, Finland, and more have much, much higher reported rates of suicide and of youth suicide,” Bobbi explained.

“The reality is that any student suicide is not okay…Yes, it’s a societal issue, and therefore society, collectively, is responsible. But saying things like that gives everybody the chance to say, “Well, it isn’t my problem.

“If I take this back to the absolute crucial commerciality of student accommodation, student accommodation only exists because students exist. If being a student becomes such an unpleasant experience that…the cons outweigh the pros, our industry won’t exist anymore.

“Accommodation providers – you can make a really positive difference by offering impactful preventative solutions.

“I really recommend, if you haven’t already adequately prepared your staff to cope with those demands, that you should.”

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