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Postgraduate mental wellbeing pilot project to be extended to undergraduates at Bradford

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Peer support and mentoring helps reduce counselling calls and withdrawals

A project to offer mental health support to postgraduate students has been so successful it is to be rolled out to undergraduates at the University of Bradford.

PGR Connect uses peer groups to shift the focus from the crisis management of mental illness to promoting mental wellbeing. It was funded by the Office for Students* in 2018 and resulted in a notable fall in the number of referrals to the University’s counselling service.

In 2017/18, there were 152 referrals, falling to 102 in 2018/19 and 78 in 2019/20. The University also noted a decrease in the number of withdrawals and suspensions, from 128 to 85 between 2016/17 and 2018/19.

Postgraduate research student (PGR) peer support facilitator Melissa Metzger, said: “I was able to provide a safe and comfortable environment for students to share their experiences without having to comprise their confidentiality. We were also able to provide support outside the other academic services available to students, which allows us to normalise our day-to-day activities and provides a space for students to voice concerns and share their victories.”

PGR Abdullahi Magaji Dauda, said: “PGR Connect has made a huge difference to me. The important part is, I have never felt alone - [it’s] the sense you are with others who get what it means being a researcher and the unique challenges I’m experiencing.”

Five peer ‘Connect’ groups were established during the first six months, involving around 40 researcher. Now the University is planning to expand the scheme to undergraduates.

Ruth Lefever, Student Success Manager at the University, who now manages PGR Connect said: “Peer support was the most successful element of the project in terms of creating a sense of community. It offers support and wellbeing through connecting PGR students with each other.

“Expansion of the model will see us take the successful elements of the project and use those with undergraduate students. This is a key element of our Access & Participation Plan (APP), within which is a workstream on peer mentoring for wellbeing.”

The APP is a five-year plan which underlines the University’s commitment to equality, diversity and social inclusion and for ensuring all students have the best possible educational outcomes. Part of its remit involves detailing how students from underrepresented groups can be supported by peer mentoring to improve their mental wellbeing. In this case, some of the elements of the PGR Connect will be employed.

PGRs who took part in the original project reported the peer support groups provided a means of de-escalating issues which might otherwise damage their mental wellbeing. It was also praised as a confidential space beyond supervisors and other academic services, where students could voice concerns and share victories.

An evaluation report into the scheme found: “PGR Connect has shown effective mental wellbeing interventions are often those that allow wellbeing to thrive without necessarily badging them as such. An informal peer group meet-up that promoted belonging and connection has been easier to engage in and generated opportunities for shared experience in way that more formally presented wellbeing interventions (ie. training workshops) cannot.”

The University has a well-established support services offering, running a range of specialist professional services, including Counselling Services, Disability Services, Academic Skills Advice, Chaplaincy, International Student Support and the Language Centre as well as teams dedicated to Student Experience and Success and Student Life.

However, key to enhancing the University’s student support strategy is the development of a more holistic approach to student wellbeing, with greater emphasis on preventative, developmental and proactive initiatives, with an integral part of this being self and peer support initiatives to develop resilience, self-care and community. 

*The project was originally funded by £31,607 by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which was disbanded in 2018 and is now administered by the Office for Students and Research England. Its actual cost ended up being £26,031.

Information about PGR support projects, conducted by Vitae, part of the Careers Research & Advisory Centre Ltd, can be found here.

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