What next for Student Wellbeing and PBSA?

Rebecca O'Hare, March 2020

The reported decline of student mental health and wellbeing has not gone unnoticed in recent years. Streams of reports documenting higher rates of mental health illness amongst students than those reported to universities have emerged. It is frequently suggested that student mental health is in ‘crisis’ and factors including moving away from home, academic pressures and financial worries all contribute to exacerbating the issue. Demands on counselling services have increased and some argue, the welcomed reduced stigma around mental health has contributed to the rise in students disclosing their issues and concerns.

As a result, PBSA operators have placed increased focus on the potential role they can play in campaigning for and improving student mental health. A number have increased funding and resource to student experience programming, aiming to enhance community relations. Others have engaged in and published research, discussed it at conferences and called on the sector to improve their staff training and signposting strategies. While smaller operators with modest budgets have chosen to implement more subtle changes to their operations as and when they can, often relying on publications from larger PBSA operators to guide them in their work.

An Increasingly Diverse Cohort

Full time course enrolments have increased by over 20% in ten years, with international student numbers doubling in the last twenty. Despite Brexit fears, the UK is still a desirable place to study with nearly a fifth of applications in 2019 coming from outside the UK and long-term growth from international students forecast to continue up to 2030. As a result, the student body is more diverse than ever and as international students continue to choose PBSA over university owned accommodation, the demographic of our residences will continue to be culturally diverse. Welcome news for all, however a more diverse cohort can bring with it a variety of mental health and wellbeing issues for PBSA teams to mitigate.

Published Guidance

Published research and guidance from the British Property Federation, Student Minds and Universities UK, outline the important role accommodation plays in the wider student experience.  However, the research has now moved beyond acknowledging accommodation as an important factor to one which now includes best practice methods for PBSA operators to improve their day to day operations and overall support offering to their residents.

The student wellbeing report from the British Property Federation as an example outlines minimum reactive wellbeing policies and useful proactive measures. It includes a self-assessment tool to aid providers in identifying gaps in their operational procedures and helps them gather and utilise data in order to develop clear and tangible action plans. PBSA operators are utilising these publications to implement positive change and improve awareness and support for student mental health. However, it is our belief future research will adopt a lens of intersectionality and resulting strategies will require PBSA operators to design more appropriate and bespoke strategies in order to engage more specific student groups.

Intersectionality Explained

Current recommendations within the sector often allocate students into neat boxes. They are first years. Male, female or prefer not to say. International or domestic. Most published research available, as an example can inform us specifically about the happiness levels of first year female students from the UK. However, how does their wellbeing differ if they are part of the LGBTQ+ international community? Or if they are part of the BAME (Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic) cohort? Or studying part time? Or all the above? Student Minds have commenced conversations in this area by publishing in the area of LGBTQ+ mental health and graduate wellbeing, however a paucity of research and recommendations continues to exist within the UK which places student mental health within an intersectionality framework.

 

What does it mean for PBSA?

From an operational standpoint, research in this area may propose new forms of staff training, revised escalation procedures and improved signposting measures. Altering mental health activities to ensure they are more inclusive may become the remit of those keen to build upon their student experience offering. When executed well, ad-hoc wellbeing events will always valuable but how can we ensure the information shared reaches all who may need it? Perhaps a focus on student wellbeing is intertwined amongst PRIDE week or Chinese New Year festivities or improved collaboration with universities to delivering their student mental health objectives becomes the norm? However the conversation on student mental health evolves, the role of PBSA operators in supporting student wellbeing will continue to be crucial.

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