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Estates management for mental health

Published: 17/05/2018

Martin Higgs, Communications Officer, Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE)

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We live in a fast-changing world. We know this. It’s our daily experience. Technology. Politics. Social attitudes. We surprise ourselves constantly by the evidence of opinions that seem from a dinosaur age long past, but in fact were mainstream little more than a decade ago. Some of that change is disconcerting. But some is immensely welcome, a trajectory that offers real hope for the future.

Few of the social mores in flux right now have more potential for societal benefit than changing attitudes towards mental health. Common mental health concerns, from stress to anxiety to depression have been labelled as taboo for decades, making recovery for the individual more difficult, and making the impact on individual lives and careers difficult to discern, never mind the wider impact on families, the economy and society as a whole. A commonly used statistic in the field suggests one in four people are diagnosed with a mental health illness at some point in their lives, while one in six will be experiencing such a problem – right now. Suicide is the leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 20 and 34 – that’s your final year students, your financially-struggling postgrads, your new research staff. Mental illness is the hidden problem that is so enormous we don’t see it even when it’s in front of our noses. In some ways we are more prepared to talk about these issues than ever before, shining a light on a whole-society challenge and gradually overcoming the stigma and prejudice that still surrounds mental illness. Perhaps by naming the problem we are more able to look it in the eye and deal with it.

The higher education response to mental health as an issue for society, and for HE institutions, staff and students is multi-faceted and international, crossing research and policy, treatment and teaching, and also the built environment, student pastoral care systems and facilities. At AUDE (the Association of University Directors of Estates) we can see a wave of responses from our member organisations to the challenge that mental illness presents – sometimes literally a concrete response such as a new wellbeing centre; sometimes in contribution to wider institutional strategy, and the positioning of the HEI within the community. Inevitably, the trajectory of change on this issue will see future generations of students benchmark using wellbeing as a criterion. We’re already at the point where the THE Student Satisfaction Survey uses mental wellbeing to rank universities. One highly ranked institution, the University of Sheffield, recently brought the cognitive behavioural therapy/“talking therapy” service inhouse and on campus, while more and more universities house GP practices so that they are instantly available to students.

We need to remember that some of this work is trail-blazing, but that sometimes we can look to other sectors for a lead. One area in which the third sector has an advantage over us is in terms of co-production. The idea that users of our services – our students primarily but of course our staff and the wider public community too – can and should be involved in developing the university estate still seems a risky diversion to some. But where co-production is embedded within project plans from the word ‘Go’, new insights can be achieved that make a fundamental difference to a development’s “mental health credentials”.

We spoke to the charity Turning Point, one of the UK’s leading providers of community mental health services, and a keen advocate of service user involvement in facility development. Turning Point found that not only did this kind of co-production generate numerous ideas big and small for improvement of facilities that neither broke the bank nor led off down impractical paths, but that early involvement led to self-evidently better satisfaction levels with completed facilities. Green spaces within buildings such as internal gardens have been used to improve the mental health of staff and service users in a vast array of “third sector” buildings from hospices to secure treatment centres, and the therapeutic benefits of taking responsibility for the maintenance of this kind of green space is also widely understood. Turning Point also worked in co-production with those experiencing mental ill-health on issues such as shape and colour of space and gained from the cumulative improvement of detail this provided. For instance, the service user groups showed a marked dislike of the colour red, associating it with anger and danger – not remotely helpful connotations in a mental health context and far from more positive associations such as ‘energy’ or ‘drive/commitment’.

Add a plant pot? Avoid red? Well reduced to the barest bones that may not seem like a manifesto for excellence in creating facilities that support good mental health. But more than one winning team has been built on UK Cycling’s famous “aggregation of marginal gains”.

What would a greater emphasis on co-production mean at your HEI? International students becoming involved in helping facilities reduce the culture gap? Space management teams co-producing the next wave of accommodation services with today’s students? Involving a “mental health check” at a meaningful and early stage of planning may cost very little and add great value. The insights gained can’t be second guessed, else what would be the point of the process? But for students and staff experiencing difficulties with their mental health, the process alone, the knowledge of input being valued, and the recognition that others experiencing a mental health decline have contributed all add up to something genuinely worthwhile. The best idea might come from anywhere. What does your current “involvement” process look like?

Turning Point is far from alone within the charity field in sourcing “the wisdom of the service user crowd” in developing its services and facilities. The Time To Change campaign brings together a coalition of bodies including the mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness to campaign against discrimination based on an individual’s mental health problem. Sourcing advice to further greater inbuilt awareness and support for your co-production work is only a phone call away.

With 14-20 May designated as Mental Health Awareness Week there’s no better time than now to review your approach. If, at any point in time, one in six of us is experiencing one of the common forms of mental health concern, isn’t it essential that we act, as institutions and as estates teams, in every way that we can to help?