From dog-petting to desk yoga: do ‘wellbeing weeks’ make university less stressful? | Education
At the “doggy de-stress” drop-in on the main campus at King’s College London (KCL), students queue around the block to sit on bean bags cuddling and taking selfies with rescue dogs. The event is one of the most popular of the 90 activities held as part of this year’s “wellbeing week”, and organisers say engagement is up 47% on last year.
“We have everything from yoga classes and coffee mornings to craft afternoons and garden sessions,” explains a students’ union spokesperson. “A lot are led by student groups. It’s about boosting resilience, making connections and having safe spaces to talk in.”
With the rise of tuition fees and the advent of widening participation, there has been a steady increase in demand for student counselling services. With many students facing stresses such as debt, academic pressures and social isolation, universities are beginning to look at how campus environments can improve mental wellbeing and become healthier places.
Many, like KCL, now hold annual wellbeing weeks. These include activities such as knitting groups, desk yoga classes, public speaking workshops and sexual health screenings. Year-round support is also available: Sheffield University have fortnightly lunchtime walks, the University of Derby run workshops on digital wellbeing and time balance, and Oxford University produce podcasts on sleep, self-compassion and mindful breathing space.
Recent graduate Will Jones founded Thrive and Survive, a wellbeing guide to help students adjust to university life. He says the majority of students struggle with the pressure of meeting new people, budgeting and maintaining a healthy diet. “The assumption that students suddenly become fully fledged adults when they join university is wrong. People are bound to have blind spots when it comes to taking care of themselves,” he says.
Next month, Student Minds are launching a mental health charter aimed at encouraging more healthy student communities. But is the focus on wellbeing actually helping? Some experts think it plays a key role in promoting an open conversation around mental health and encouraging students to take time out. “There’s definitely a change happening within the culture of higher education,” says Alan Percy, head of Oxford University counselling service. “Universities are beginning to think in a more thoughtful way and factoring in wellbeing. When students are feeling healthy, they are engaged.”
Others, however, think that more practical changes – such as offering deadline extensions, exam resits, or flexible working patterns – are more important than posters and pop-up events. “All they did was keep booking these dog-petting sessions, but it was actually very stressful,” says Deniz Ronayne, who studied at Queen’s University Belfast. “The queue took ages and even when you got to the dog you had two minutes with them and that was that. It just felt like a cop-out.” For Ronayne, the best thing his university did to improve his wellbeing was to avoid stacking up exams and coursework over Christmas.
Although organisers say programmes focusing on wellbeing do not place existing resources under strain, some fear they are not designed to address mental health issues experienced by students most at risk. “It’s great that mental health is being taken seriously, but we need to be careful to look at the impact of what we’re doing so that we don’t waste effort and money,” says Nancy Hey, founder of the What Works Centre for Wellbeing.
How to destress at university
Relax. Take time out to do something you enjoy, whether it’s reading a book, phoning home or having a hot bath. Don’t feel guilty about doing something completely unrelated to your studies – time for yourself is important.
Sleep. If you’re tired, worries can get blown out of proportion. Give yourself time to unwind before bed. Put down your screens and avoid stimulants like tea, coffee and alcohol.
Eat well. Making three meals a day, seven days a week can be relentless, but the right foods can help your concentration for studying. Use online meal planners and try cooking in batches or with friends to save time and money.
Budget. Stay organised and work out a realistic amount to live on – there are apps out there to help.
Don’t isolate yourself. Talking can help deal with difficult times. There are many people able to help, such as a friend, tutor, family member or university adviser. You can also go to your GP, who can talk you through the support available.
Exercise. Physical activity is a way to improve your mood. According to mental health charity Mind, taking a walk, going for a swim or joining a sports team will give you a welcome break from any issues you may have.