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University’s mental health support goes digital 

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Person holding and looking at a mobile phone

Two innovative projects secure Office for Students funding 

Two University of Bradford projects which aim to take mental health support into the digital realm have been awarded funding by the Office for Students. 

The University secured £200,000 to create a groundbreaking mental health mobile phone web app and has also won £46,335 to work on a separate initiative with the Open University and other partners. 

The fact that two of the 18 funded projects are at Bradford has been described as a great result for the University, which has declared mental health one of its priorities. 

The mobile app is being designed to better engage students of South Asian heritage with a view to creating a broader platform for all students to engage with the topic of mental health and wellbeing. It will essentially make accessing mental health support much easier. 

It could be used for things like helping people deal with stress and anxiety (for example, during exam time), and to overcome barriers which could prevent people from seeking help and advice in times of need. 

It is hoped both projects will boost continuation rates. 

Overcoming stigma 

Nikki Pierce, Academic Registrar, said: “We’re very pleased to have been successful in this bid, because it will allow us to reach out to more of our students, especially those of South Asian heritage, by offering them an easier pathway in seeking mental health support. 

“We know from our own statistics that around 58 per cent of our student population have a South Asian heritage and yet only 39 per cent of users of our University Counselling Service come from this group. This will hopefully find a solution to that disproportionate take-up. 

“Our service ensures anyone who seeks mental health support will receive it. As a University, we prioritise the mental health of our students, and this project adds to the wide range of support we provide. 

“We have chosen to do an app because research suggests apps are a good way to engage younger people. We are already talking to students in focus groups about how to present and brand the app to get people to engage with it, as well as working with them to understand the cultural barriers and stigma associated with accessing mental health support, and how we can best overcome them.” 

The app is being developed by the Working Academy in conjunction with Bradford District Care NHS Foundation Trust (BDCFT) and will be piloted with students between September and January 2022, with a view to a full roll-out in September 2022, subject to evaluation. 

Overall, £20,000 of the award will be spent on the app itself, with the rest used to fund content, training, the support of a team of student ambassadors, and a project manager to oversee and evaluate the project. It will also fund a service liaison officer to work between the University and BDCFT. 

The Working Academy’s Lucy Würstlin said: “This project is a brilliant example of co-design with digitally-savvy University graduates able to bring their expertise to designing and building this mobile web app in collaboration with their peers. Our Working Academy teams get to demonstrate both their talent and employability through projects like this.” 

Liz Harney, Clinical Manager, MyWellbeing College, which is part of BDCFT, said: “This is a really exciting project, and we will be involving students as it is developed, to ensure the app really works for them. We hope our ongoing work with the University through this project and others will support students to access mental health services from the NHS or voluntary and community sector organisations.”  

Group support 

The second project involves a collaboration with the Open University, the University of Warwick and student mental health charities to create a ‘toolkit’ that will pull together best practice for the promotion of mental wellbeing on digital networks, particularly for commuter students, students who spend time on placements as part of their course and those of a South Asian heritage. 

Alison Hartley, Associate Dean for Learning and Teaching, said: “In the past, most informal peer-to-peer support networks existed through in-person contact, for example, students meeting up in classes and so on, and while this will still occur, with the advance of social media and group-chat apps, a significant part of that has moved into the digital realm. 

“This project aims to provide informal peer support and facilitate meaningful connections that do not rely on a campus environment. For example, it could mean making students aware of existing digital support groups, giving advice on how to set one up, and signposting them to other support options.” 

Funding programme details

These two projects are part of the mental health funding competition programme: Using innovation and intersectional approaches to target mental health support for students, funded by the Office for Students. The Office for Students is the independent regulator for higher education in England. Their aim is to ensure that every student, whatever their background, has a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers.’ 

In 2020, the Office for Students announced a major collaborative programme to find innovative ways to support groups of students with characteristics identified as increasing the risk of poor mental health and students who may experience barriers to accessing support due to their course, mode of study or other characteristics.  

The OfS awarded just over £3 million, with co-funding of more than £3.16 million from lead providers and their partners, across 18 collaborative projects which will run until September 2023. The programme includes more than 90 organisations, including higher education providers, charities, NHS partners, students’ unions, sector bodies, digital providers and local authorities. The projects work as a network and share effective practice with the sector.’ 

Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students, said: "Having a mental health condition should not be a barrier to success in higher education, but for many students this is still the case.

"Data shows that students reporting a mental health condition are more likely to drop out, less likely to graduate with a first or 2:1, and progress into skilled work or further study – compared to students without a declared condition. We also know that students come to university or college from a range of backgrounds and that their individual journey, and the kind of support they require, is likely to be influenced by their specific circumstances.   

“That’s why this funding of targeted interventions for student mental health is so important. By paying attention to the diverse needs of students; universities and colleges can fine-tune the support they offer and ensure that all students, regardless of where they are from, have the best chance possible to succeed.  

“Working with the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education, we are pleased to be able to fund projects across a range universities and colleges targeting a number of priority groups. We look forward to working with these projects to develop and evaluate innovative and collaborative approaches to targeted support for student mental health, and to support the take-up of this learning for the benefit of students in all parts of the sector.”

Additional information

#OfSMentalHealth

The University of Bradford was recently ranked #1 in England in the new Social Mobility Index university ranking table, meaning it has the highest rate of significantly improving students’ life chances.

The Working Academy is a ‘spin out’ company that gives undergraduates and postgraduates the chance to work on ‘real world projects’ and be paid at the same time. It takes on between 60 and 70 projects a year, offering around 120 ‘learning opportunities’, including everything from high-end coding to shooting and producing video.

University of Bradford is part of the mental health funding competition programme: Using innovation and intersectional approaches to target mental health support for students, funded by the Office for Students. The Office for Students is the independent regulator for higher education in England. Their aim is to ensure that every student, whatever their background, has a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers.’

In 2020, the Office for Students announced a major collaborative programme to find innovative ways to support groups of students with characteristics identified as increasing the risk of poor mental health and students who may experience barriers to accessing support due to their course, mode of study or other characteristics.

The OfS awarded just over £3m, with co-funding of more than £3.16m from lead providers and their partners, across 18 collaborative projects which will run until September 2023. The programme includes more than 90 organisations, including higher education providers, charities, NHS partners, students’ unions, sector bodies, digital providers and local authorities. The projects work as a network and share effective practice with the sector. 

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