Even though the Student Services (STS) building is wedged between the Square, Union House and the library, and is at the centre of UEA’s campus, it still feels slightly out of the way. I’m sitting in a meeting room with UEA’s mental health chiefs: Jon Sharp, director of STS; Claire Pratt, head of wellbeing; and Jane Amos, head of life and learning. Although mental health has always been a topic of conversation at UEA, it came to a head last year after four student deaths in just 10 months at UEA.

Last year saw the university introduce a number of new measures to support students, from the Vice Chancellor setting up a mental health taskforce to introducing a raft of new mental health initiatives. One change that may have passed many UEA students by was Student Service’s rebranding. Formerly Student Support Services, Sharp tells me they removed the word ‘support’ in a bid to make the service easier for students to access.

“We know that some people find it difficult to access our services and we know that for some people that’s about not feeling that they need support. They want to feel like they’re just accessing a service because for some people, as soon as you throw in the word ‘support’, it makes them [feel] either that they’re vulnerable and they don’t want to feel vulnerable or they’re being needy, [and] they don’t want to feel like they’re being needy or that they’re not coping and they want to feel like they’re coping. So by trying to strip out that word ‘support’, it doesn’t do anything in terms of the support we provide. It’s still there, but it makes it easier, we hope, for people to come and access us.”

He adds, “For those students who were perfectly okay with the idea of it being Student Support Services, calling it Student Services doesn’t make it more difficult for them. So it’s sort of a win-win.”

When I ask whether it had anything to do with restoring their reputation on campus, I’m met with a barrage of noes from all three.

Sharp explains, “It sounds weird to think about branding and marketing in terms of a service, but actually it’s really important. 

“One of the big issues is that universities aren’t good at marketing to their existing students because they feel like what they need to do is just give them information. And actually, if you want to engage them, want to make them feel interested in what you’re offering, you’ve got to market it. That’s what people expect. And part of marketing is making sure that your brand is always the same, that your name is always the same.”

Waiting times at STS have always been a hot topic. Sharp tells me, “one of the things that we know makes it difficult for anybody… to access this kind of support is if there is a big, big delay, it’s easy for them to convince themselves that maybe they don’t need [support].”

Sharp adds that former North Norfolk MP and mental health activist Norman Lamb “was talking just before Christmas and he was saying pitifully few universities actually record data about wait times. We do.”

Sharp tells me his team focuses on waiting times a great deal. “What we’re now able to do is look at how long students are waiting and make sure that if it’s an emergency case we engage with that student on the same day.”

STS’s target is to see someone within ten days for an assessment and within 20 “to be receiving a therapeutic episode”.

“One thing I would always say is we’re not a proxy for the NHS,” Sharp adds. “We don’t provide diagnoses or medical care or treatment. And so if it’s an emergency case, our role is very often in trying to effectively and safely refer that person into the appropriate NHS support”.

In December last year UEA introduced 16 new initiatives to help STS support students and staff. One that STS hope to launch later this month is an initiative to allow the university to inform a student’s emergency contact if they have significant concerns about a student’s wellbeing, something Concrete has called for as part of the Mental Health Crisis campaign. Yet the university can only get in touch with the emergency contact if the student consents to UEA reaching out for that particular issue. Pratt tells me, “Consent should be decision-specific… you need to go back to somebody and say, ‘do I have your consent to specifically speak to this person about this issue’ to ensure that that’s still the student’s wishes and still the safe thing to do.”

“It’s about keeping people safe,” she adds.

Concrete has also called for UEA to pledge to include alcohol-free common rooms in new and existing architecture. Sharp says,”Increasingly young people are drinking less. Drinking culture is fading away. So generally students aren’t necessarily always wanting to have their social event either focussed around drink or in a space where there is drink.”

For Sharp, tackling mental health issues at universities is “all about partnership”.

Referring to the recent mental health event STIGMA, which aimed to reduce the stigma associated with conversations about mental health, Sharp tells me, “we don’t really think about, ‘is it an SU event’? ‘Is it a Student Services event?’ ‘Is it a university event that Student Services are leaning on?’ They’re all partnership events.”

But it’s not just about working within the community at UEA. STS also work with other universities who are experiencing similar issues around mental health.

UEA’s involvement in Enlitened, a mental wellbeing app, has led them to work with a number of universities including Exeter, Northumbria and Sussex. 

UEA is also part of the Association of Managers of Student Services in Higher Education (AMOSSHE), which brings universities together to share their knowledge of confronting issues such as student wellbeing and mental health.

“[Student Services has] always been a part of the university that is very appreciated by students and delivers really good services. And we’ve just improved and improved,” says Sharp.

“What’s interesting when you look at the analytical breakdown of NSS [National Student Survey] for example, is the students who are writing about their experiences, who have been users of our services, are extremely positive. The concerns of other really big wait times… tend to be from people who aren’t necessarily users of the service themselves. We did some quite detailed analysis on that.”

Another institution UEA has worked with is Bristol University, which became infamous after 10 student deaths in just over 18 months at the university. Sharp says the reason STS are in contact with Bristol is down to them having“a very, very difficult set of experiences with student deaths. They had to deal with an awful lot of media reporting around that, which wasn’t always helpful. They were working very closely with government departments.”

“It seemed like an ideal fit,” he adds. 

Even so, the STS director does not believe UEA is experiencing a mental health crisis. “I’m not going to have a conversation about something that doesn’t exist,” he tells me.

“There’s a huge buzz word out there in the media generally about a mental health crisis and it’s an easy thing to say. Actually exploring what does mental health look like right now as a field of inquiry and as a lived experience for young people is a lot more complex.”

Sharp explains to me while his role is to manage the structure of STS in terms of, resources, funding, and working with the Uea(su) among other organisations, it is Pratt and Amos who have particular expertise in the areas they are working in. Pratt has worked in mental health for 20 years, and Amos has been at STS since 2001.

She tells me there has been “huge improvement” in the past two decades. 

“We didn’t have clear structures like we have now. I think we’ve made huge improvements on the structure of Student Services. Our provision was low. 

Amos adds, “It’s got bigger. It’s got broader. There’s a much better provision and opportunities for students now. So not only has it grown in numbers, but actually the provision has got much wider. And I think we have very much a better understanding of the student community as well now.”

I ask Pratt how they have been helping to open up the conversation around mental health and wellbeing at UEA.

“I suppose you can look at that question from various different levels,” she tells me. “From the highest management within the university the conversation is very much alive and people are very engaged with that in terms of the mental health task force that the [Vice Chancellor] chairs and runs. And you’ve got some really significant people across the university from all strands as well that are engaged in these conversations at that level. Then you’ve also got their multiagency [suicide prevention] group, which not only promotes the conversation about mental health and wellbeing within the university, but it draws in local services and people locally who are providing services to people with mental health or who’ve got expertise around that. So it’s looking at the community as well as the UEA community, because we know we can’t support all of the students ourselves. Many of the students that are at the university and will come through to students access will need support of NHS or other external specialist services, so having those people on board in the conversation is absolutely essential.”

She tells me, “Last year we piloted with a number of different schools going into timetabled classes and delivering sessions around mental health awareness and developing resilience and looking after our own wellbeing, how we kind of understand that and promote it differently, so trying to reach those students that wouldn’t necessarily walk through our doors, that wouldn’t necessarily attend one of our workshops, but actually getting the conversation out into the school, making it a very normal thing to talk about something that is just part of our teaching.”

STS also runs workshops and one-to-one sessions that students are able to attend.

The team are also very pleased with Enlitened, a student wellbeing app UEA partnered with online student network The Student Room to develop.

Sharp tells me, “So far I would regarded it as a success, both for students and for the university. If you think about it in terms of how can the university better understand what students want and be agile in terms of trying to respond to those student wishes and student preferences, you could look at the NSS and you could say, well, that’s a third of your undergraduate population, get to give their opinion once every three years. You look at the Enlitened app and we’ve got students giving us their opinion every week.”

The app was launched in October last year, and Sharp tells me since then they have answered around 245,000 questions from students since then.

“We’ve had over 300 unique ideas submitted,” he says. “On average, we get 40 odd ideas a day coming through that we moderate. We’ve responded to those ideas, as we’ve said we would, on a monthly basis. And what’s been really interesting about it is because it is student led we’re not saying to the student, ‘what do you think of this idea?’ We’re saying, ‘look, here’s a blank piece of paper, you tell us what you would like us to look at and think about’.

We’ve currently got 3,400 active users. So the total number of downloads over the period will exceed that because some people will inevitably [get] on board and then drop away. One of the things we’re looking at doing for 2020/21 academic year is making the onboarding onto Enlitened just a natural part of your registration process with the university – making it’s clear that it’s optional, it’s not a requirement, but really pushing that notion of if you want to get the best out of your time at UEA this app is going to help you because it because it really will. In terms of tangible outcomes, what’s really interesting is there is a lot of conversation quite rightly about wellbeing. 

“What was really interesting was the idea that had the most upvotes was not about wellbeing and it wasn’t about level of resourcing. It was about ‘I don’t know where to fill my water bottle’. That’s the thing that for a huge number of students is really important. And in terms of the student experience, what we know from organisations that get customer experience stuff right is the small things. If you get the small things right people feel able to talk about the bigger things because they know you are listening organisation.

“[The app has been] really good for students. It’s really good for the student union because they get to promote their products through it. 

Sharp anticipates the app will grow over the next year. “My expectation is that two to three years from now, if you’re a university and you don’t have a product like this, you’re going to look significantly behind the times. This is becoming a thing that [students] expect.”

Yet although UEA helped develop the app, Sharp is clear that UEA has no financial stake in it. 

We are not in any sense having ownership of that as an asset or as an intellectual property that is a student rooms. We are a customer,” he tells me.

Finally, I ask whether Sharp is confident in UEA’s ability to support students. “Absolutely,” he says. “I wouldn’t have been here for a quarter of a century… if I didn’t feel that the university is an institution that cares about students.That’s the reason why I’m doing what I do, it’s the reason why I can get quite passionate at times about issues like our conversation around, is it or isn’t it a mental health [crisis]. Because I really, really care about our students having a really good experience. If I didn’t think the university cared equally about that, I would be at a different institution. But I am absolutely confident that they do.”

You can contact STS by calling 01603 592761 or emailing studentsupport@uea.ac.uk. A full list of support services available can be found here.

Alternatively you can contact Samaritans on 116 123 24-hours a day or email jo@samaritans.org