While a peak in suicides is reported around exam time, the bigger picture reveals a need to effectively manage student wellbeing the entire academic year.
With the summer exam season in full swing, students at universities across the country are under pressure to knuckle down and deliver. At a time when mental health and wellbeing has never been higher on the agenda, many students still experience huge stress around exams. Managing to schedule revision in with the demands of day-to-day life can lead to students feeling overwhelmed and at risk of spiraling into poor mental health. Additional challenges such as being far from home or juggling studies with part-time work may compound stress.
Whilst students need effective support in helping them deal with stress during the summer exam period, evidence shows they benefit greatly from ongoing support. Holistic support, ideally delivered from day one, makes it less likely that students will experience a crisis during times of high stress. Advice and support to students is vital not only to help them achieve their best academically, but to alleviate stress in the short term, to deliver a good university experience, and to safeguard against longer term wellbeing or mental health issues.
Wellbeing during the assessment period
Current best practice advice for students starts with prioritising their own wellbeing. Students are advised to schedule in plenty of free time to unwind and relax, breaking up revision with regular breaks. Sleeping well before exams is also crucial. Studies show it helps improve attention, creativity, and problem-solving.
Sticking to revision during the day and scheduling relaxing activities in the evening can help students to fall asleep more easily. Alcohol and caffeine are known to reduce sleep quality – so it is a good idea for students to cut back on those and give themselves a better chance of achieving quality rest. Planning revision in advance is key: having a realistic schedule and sticking to it can help avoid last minute panic which can help students feel more in control. Exams are important but even if you don’t get the mark you expect, it’s not the end of the world. While some stress can actually be beneficial during exams, being able to distinguish between ‘normal’ and ‘unhealthy’ levels of stress is vital to alerting students when they need support.
Supporting all students
But what happens if students are not able to identify they need support, or are reluctant to take that first step of reaching out to get advice? This is a challenge for university Wellbeing departments, who are tasked with providing wellbeing support to all students regardless of whether they actively seek formal support through university services.
In addition, early intervention and the promotion of healthy behaviours from students are key aspects of the Step Change framework by Universities UK. The framework is echoed by the University Mental Health Charter introduced to recognise and reward those institutions that demonstrate good practice and make student mental health a university-wide priority with improved student mental health and wellbeing outcomes.
A potential solution has been initiated in University College Birmingham (UCB).
- See more: How to support young people during exam season: advice from an Educational Psychologist
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Utilising new technologies
Faced with the challenges of nurturing student wellbeing, UCB’s Health and Wellbeing Service wanted to ensure they reached out to every student: even those who were hesitant to engage in formal support.
To address this gap they sourced a preventative and early intervention tool, aiming to help first year students develop their resilience and understanding of mental health. The digital wellbeing tool of choice was Unihealth, designed to promote mental wellbeing and give students the knowledge - and confidence - to take positive action regarding their own health and seek further support if needed, enabling early intervention. Students opting into the service receive proactive motivational support via Facebook Messenger. Topics include transition into university life, making friends, home sickness, depression and anxiety, crisis support, life skills, alcohol and drugs, nutrition, sexual health, sleep advice, exam stress, student finance, and vaccinations.
“When I really needed help, a message happened to come through and it was so relevant", says a student about the digital wellbeing tool. "It was as though you knew what I was going through”. Another student who used the technology required further support, saying that the technology "helped me with homesickness in the first few weeks and directed me to the Samaritans”.
Ross Loveitt, UCB Guild of Students President was also extremely positive. When surveyed 78% of students said Unihealth helped them stay on their course, 77% felt more confident about living independently, 88% coped better academically, 88% settled more easily at university, and 81% felt more supported at university.
Supporting students through the crunch time of exams is crucial, but it can’t be forgotten that student wellbeing is something that needs to be safeguarded not just through examinations, but from the very beginning.
For further information on Unihealth, visit https://unihealth.uk.com/
Clare Bradshaw is the Executive Manager at Unihealth, the health and wellbeing digital messaging programme for UK university students.