The first SMaRteN ‘mini-sandpit’ event held on 13th March 2019 represented an invaluable opportunity for a diverse network of stakeholders to consider and discuss what is distinctive about student mental health. Michael Priestley and Katie Tyrrell, representing the SMaRteN student-led research team, summarise and reflect on the day…
Alyson Dodd, Senior Research Fellow at Northumbria University, began by introducing SMaRteN and the objectives of the sandpit. Alyson started from a conceptualisation of student mental health as existing on a continuum with wellbeing. The importance of using consistent, reliable and meaningful measures, indicators and outcomes was emphasised. This is essential in order to understand distinctive ‘student’ risk factors; track and monitor students requiring support; and evaluate the effectiveness of support strategies within a whole-university approach.
Participants were then given 10 minutes to write an individual ‘elevator pitch’; a brief pitch of a relevant research project and its contribution to understanding an important challenge or question related to student mental health and wellbeing. All participants then had two minutes to share this elevator pitch with the members of their group. The written elevator pitch templates were collected, thematised and categorised on a dual axis of conceptual and methodological approaches. Pitches included research on a range of issues, including distinctive student risk factors and communities, use of existing secondary data, effective interventions, and the evaluation of measures.
Alyson proceeded to introduce the research that is being conducted by the SMaRteN student-led research team. The team is conducting two research projects to help understand what is distinctive about student mental health. One, a scoping review of student wellbeing and stress measures, indicators and conceptual frameworks used within relevant organisations and academic literature, with the aim to co-develop a compendium of measures that include explanations of strengths and weaknesses. Two, a series of ethnographic case studies that explore how students understand and experience mental health and wellbeing.
Representatives from the SMaRteN student-led research team shared their initial findings on wellbeing measures. I presented on the scoping review of organisations; in essence, an initial screening process suggests that whilst many organisations work with student wellbeing, there is not a consistent student-specific measure that is used in practice. Katie Tyrrell also presented on the scoping review of the academic literature; beginning with an initial screen of 16,362 articles from three academic databases, which suggest a lack of UK-based research with a multitude of measures being used to determine student wellbeing, with a more consistent approach to measurement required.
Neil Armstrong, from the University of Oxford, highlighted ethnography as a way of understanding how language and labelling performatively shapes students’ lived experiences of mental health and wellbeing, including the mediating impact of both stigma and social relationships. Chris Sampson, Senior Economist at the Office of Health Economics, discussed the relevance of health economics in considering both cost-effective student mental health service provision, and how students make sense of and value mental health and wellbeing, related behaviours, and treatment preferences.
In the following breakout session, participants discussed key shared challenges and priorities for measurement, with discussion focalised on indicators of student wellbeing and mental health difficulties, measures being used, and their relative strengths and weaknesses. Particularly important points were raised around distinctions between mental health difficulties and everyday distress, the use of appropriate measures for specific purposes, sleep as a distinctive indicator or factor, timing of measures, and student survey fatigue.
Rachel Piper from Student Minds shared the charity’s work on Co-Producing Mental Health Strategies with Students: A Guide for the Higher Education Sector; namely the benefits of co-production for effective student mental health research and practice, and guidance for engaging different student communities in co-production work at universities.
The afternoon session was centralised on the SMaRteN plus-funding call for stakeholder-informed cross- disciplinary research that specifically promotes strong student engagement. Eight discussion groups were identified according to the thematised elevator pitches as a starting point for collaborative discussion. Participants were then free, either individually or as a group, to develop a research proposal before pitching it back to the whole group.
Laura Beswick, SMaRteN network coordinator, closed the session by outlining future SMaRteN activities (including funding calls, future events, the online consultation, and the student-led SMaRteN conference in December), as well as discussing effective means to coordinate and expand the network and connect stakeholders with similar interests. The day acted as an invaluable opportunity for stakeholders to share expertise, identify shared challenges and generate innovative ideas. It was excellent in forging connections with passionate individuals, dedicated to shaping and changing the landscape of student mental health for the better.
Feeback from attendees...
"The first Student Mental Health Research Network (SMaRteN) brought together a diverse range of organisations from across the sector and beyond. The day focussed on how to measure wellbeing and mental health to better inform policy, practice and theory for the student population. Presentations from SMaRteN, and the development of one-minute elevator pitches by Network colleagues, brought together diverse viewpoints and insights, creating opportunities to share initiatives, form collaborations and develop research proposals. As Chair of UMHAN, it was a privilege to be a part of day, to hear the enthusiasm for how we need to be evidence- and user-informed in our approaches to practice and policy; it was a hugely enjoyable day and it was great to talk with many respected people."
- Dan Doran, Chair of the University Mental Health Advisers Network (UMHAN) and Mental Health Support Team Manager at Loughborough University
"Thanks so much to SMARTEN for organising and delivering such a wonderful event. Over the last decade of my work, specialising in student mental health and wellbeing I have always been disappointed that working from a scientist-practitioner perspective there has always been such a paucity of quality research from which to inform practice. The Sandpit meeting was an excellent opportunity for practitioners and researchers to come together. The interdisciplinary insights from economics and anthropology were stimulation. Most exciting was the role students had in driving this new wave of research. I shall look forward to developing strong collaborations across the network."
Luke Jefferies, Swansea University
Michael Priestley and Katie Tyrrell are members of SMaRteN's student-led research team.
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