A student communications strategy to support mental health and wellbeing

By Posted in - Content Strategy & Student Engagement on August 19th, 2017 0 Comments Student mental health

In this post we share how a student communications strategy should be used in parallel to developments in mental health services to support your students’ health and wellbeing. 

An article published in The Independent this week called out the need to develop a mental health league table for universities. Benjamin Clayton highlights worrying statistics of the number of students that will experience mental health problems while at university, with at least 1 in 4 students reporting such an experience.

Clayton outlines the factors contributing to a potential rise in mental health issues amongst students. The pressure of rising costs, social media, expectations of success, and social and political factors influencing our comfort in speaking out about our personal views were all identified. Contrast this with what Clayton identifies as poor “per head” investment in mental health services within universities, and the rise in pressure doesn’t seem to equally match a rise in support.

An article in the Times Higher Education from April this year also revealed the extent of this problem at postgraduate level. PhD students are 1.9 times more likely to experience a mental health problem than the general student population.

While Clayton calls for greater investment in mental health services and the pressure of league tables to prompt universities into action, he also tentatively touches on the need for better communication. His suggestion of talking about mental health in induction sessions, and ensuring careers support staff are well briefed is perhaps a step forward, but I’d suggest it doesn’t go anywhere near far enough. A proper student communications strategy is needed.

A personal topic

I hold this topic close to my heart, which is why I want to outline here my thoughts on how we as content and communications professionals need to get involved with addressing this issue in higher education, and supporting it through the development of a student communications strategy.

Firstly, as a postgraduate student and early in my professional career working for a university, I lived and worked amongst the students as resident staff in their halls. Most university-owned accommodation has such a system. As resident staff you’re there to maintain wellbeing in the halls.

In my time as resident staff I encountered very real experiences of students suffering mental health issues. To name just a few, they included homesickness, anxiety about succeeding, anxiety following a sexual attack, depression, substance abuse, and at least one student living with paranoid schizophrenia. Student suicides were rare, but in my short time working in the system across different universities I can recall three successful suicide attempts. At least two are believed to have been prompted by a fear of academic failure.

But for me this topic is even more personal. And this personal revelation really underpins the reason why I think we must get strategic about our communications approach.

Earlier this year I realised that I’ve spent over 20 years of my life suffering from anxiety issues. Now with that understanding and “label” I can trace back incidents from age 12 or 13 as being anxiety-related. But it’s taken me until my late 30s to even realise that there was a problem. When you live with such an issue for so long it becomes the default, and so we don’t always even consider reaching out for help. Anxiety somehow became a marker for effort: if I wasn’t experiencing anxiety and stress, then I wasn’t trying hard enough to be the best I could be.

Let’s take this one step further. If anxiety and related-issues are even more common amongst students, then our perception of what is “normal” is skewed out of proportion since we are surrounded by others experiencing the same thing. In other words, the ivory tower effect kicks in and we risk seeing mental health issues as a default position, and therefore not something that we should seek help with. Anxiety and stress become a badge of pride all too easily confused with “I’m giving this my all”.

This to me is where that need for a truly strategic approach to student communications must come in, and it goes far beyond simply putting up a load of posters to tell people the contact details for the counselling service. We have to take a step back.

Clayton outlines that although “three quarters of students know that their university offers a counselling service, only 30 per cent rate those services as “very helpful”; 45 per cent deem them “somewhat helpful” and 21 per cent report that they are “not helpful at all.””

There is undoubtedly a question of perception of the quality of support provided. But there is also a question of people taking the leap from awareness of the service to actually seeking help. Those are worlds apart. And in many cases, they simply may not even recognise that they have an issue that they could get support with.

Knowing what we’re trying to achieve

The call for a league table to measure mental health service provision in universities isn’t enough. That endangers us of setting objectives in universities of the number of students passing through a counselling service, the price per student invested in mental health support, and the feedback scores from those students. To achieve that objective, we can simply follow a fairly traditional marketing funnel that pushes them through a process.

But what we really need as our goal is to achieve a culture shift. We need to reach a position where mental health issues are not worn as a badge of how hard you’re working, and instead are seen as something to get help with. And we need to foster a culture of deeply embedded and communicated empathy. This is where the student communications strategy – more specifically, a content strategy – comes in.

Saying “we have a counselling service” is telling students there is something they can use. Showing them empathy for their situation is telling the students that we feel with them, and don’t just provide for them. It’s a wholly different positioning piece and requires a carefully planned approach.

Better understanding our students

To start a student communications strategy and plan to work in parallel with improvements to services (and promote improved provision), we have to dive much deeper than we ever have before into really understanding our students.

We have to understand their individual and collective perceptions of mental health. What do they deem as a default position? What looks like a badge of pride? Do they even recognise something as being a mental health issue? What judgements do they make of themselves and others in such situations?

By doing this we can begin to build personas for our student body that really help us to understand the different views, values, motivations and triggers that different types of students have. From there we can then plan a range of content and communications initiatives and interventions tailored to those differing views and experiences.

Developing content for them, not about us

I’ve been banging this drum for years now, but if we’re really to get students to engage with our services and support, we need them to understand that we understand them. That true empathy is in place.

We often use empathy mapping alongside persona development work to really understand what matters to them, what concerns them, what excites them, and what questions they’re asking in their own lives. Once we’ve set that out we then have a clear set of “hooks” for us to hang content ideas on.

So, instead of “here’s the opening times for the counselling service”, how about “here’s how to sleep better at night”? We develop content that helps them, that is useful to them, instead of just signposting help and support services through our content. By doing this, they realise that we “get them” and that we care for them before they even consider opening the door to the counselling service. In doing so, we lower the barriers to them opening that door and asking for support.

Not just about mental health issues

In a way this reminds me of work that we led for Imperial College London a couple of years ago to entice students to engage more with study practices, assessment and feedback, and learning how to be more effective in their approach to their own study. But how do you encourage students who have got straight-As their entire life that they need to learn how to be better at studying?

The answer is, you don’t.

That message doesn’t show any empathy for their position, beliefs and values. In fact, it serves to undermine their own brilliance and achievements. Instead you appeal to their sense of excelling and being the very best. And so the “study guide” became the “success guide”.

The language you choose, and the direction you take to develop empathy with students is subtle and requires a deep understanding of what really matters to them and what they really feel. Without this strategic approach to communication and engaging them with the issue, then you can invest all the money in the world into mental health service provision, but they won’t feel the empathy and the connection. They won’t see themselves in it. And many of them won’t open the door.

Producing a great content strategy for empathetic and useful student communications is the equivalent of holding that door open for them with your warmest smile and a big mug of tea waiting for them.

Supporting you to support them

If you’d like help with understanding your student body better and advancing your student communications, then this is work that we take great joy and a sense of responsibility in delivering. Have a chat with us about where you are now and where you’d like to be.


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