Michael Priestley, SMaRteN Student Team member 2018/2019
The University Mental Health Charter recently highlighted student voice and participation as an enabling strategy for universities to effectively coordinate whole university change to student mental health outcomes. Student voice and participation via the co-production of student mental health research can offer one particularly rewarding route to understanding and responding to the student mental health context and support needs. The UKRI-funded Student Mental Health Research Network [SMaRteN] models a particularly ambitious, strategic, and effective approach to co-producing student mental health research. As an outgoing member of the SMaRteN student-led research team, I share my experiences of how the principles of co-production can be applied in research to better understand and change the state of student mental health in the higher education sector.
What is Co-Production?
Coproduction is essentially ‘the principle that people who use, may use, or refer others to mental health services have valuable knowledge through experience and individual context’ (Piper & Emmanuel, 2019, p.16) which can be mobilised in partnership with relevant professionals to design and deliver effective mental health initiatives. In the higher education sector, this means that student experiences of university and/or mental health difficulties are imperative for understanding student support needs in research, policy and practice. Given the diversity of student experiences, the engagement of the whole student population is crucial. Having this range of voices, experiences, and perspectives can enrich understandings of student mental health and is essential in developing a whole university approach attuned to the mental health needs of the whole university community.
Coproduction is distinguished from consultation, involvement, and participation by its active and sustained engagement of students as equal stakeholders throughout the planning, delivery, and evaluation phases of student mental health strategies and initiatives. It is defined by an active and ongoing process of collaboration and productive partnership between students and relevant professionals - sharing experience, knowledge and networks to co-create something that could not be produced by either group alone.
Co-Production in Action: The SMaRteN Student-Led Research Team
The national UKRI-funded Student Mental Health Research Network [SMaRteN] is focused on bringing together the perspectives of key stakeholders to improve understanding of student mental health in higher education. SMaRteN is committed to ensuring that the student voice is kept at the core of all their projects and arguably offers a case study exemplar for co-producing student mental health research.
The SMaRteN student-led research team brings together a diverse and dedicated group of students from different courses, institutions, and regions of the UK to work together to direct and deliver the network’s activity. One of the team’s main roles is co-designing and leading the network’s research projects. During 2019, half of the student team developed a compendium of student mental health measures with key stakeholders, whilst half conducted an ethnographic study elucidating students’ understanding of their own mental health and help-seeking.
The student team was also responsible for planning and organising the 2019 SMaRteN conference, which aimed at stimulating dialogue between students, researchers, and practitioners on the key issues pertaining to student mental health. Our role included everything from planning to delivery: accepting and thematising contributions, coordinating logistical issues, and chairing panel and presentation sessions.
As a member of the student team, I also sat on the network’s research ‘plus-funding’ panel responsible for awarding £100,000 to innovative research projects addressing the question ‘what is distinctive about student mental health?’. I represented the student team and shared our findings at SMaRteN events, and still sit on the steering committee for the SMaRteN ‘Key Questions’ project. The Key Questions project truly exemplifies SMaRteN’s approach to co-production; steered by a partnership of students and researchers, the project asks students to submit what they think are the key unanswered questions around student mental health. This will then form the basis for strategically directing future research priorities and allocating £100,000 in future ‘plus-funding’ calls, ensuring that the student context and support needs is at the heart of the future student mental health research agenda.
Throughout all these activities, the student team have been integral to the decision-making, delivery, and dissemination of student mental health research. Our input was ongoing, actively encouraged, and valued equally at all stages of the projects. Importantly this involvement was made possible through reciprocal support from researchers and the network coordinators. The student team were research trained, supported, and made to feel valued and connected to the project throughout, whilst all parties were able to benefit from the collective experience, knowledge, skills, and networks of the team. Through a co-production approach, the research projects remained appropriately focused and grounded in wide range of student experiences. Moving forward, this can offer a critical strategy for the sector to ensure that student mental health strategies and interventions are relevant, effective, and accessible to the needs of the whole student population.
As a student with lived experience of mental health difficulties, SMaRteN was an invaluable and rewarding opportunity to help understand and improve student mental health at university. SMaRteN’s approach to the co-production of student mental health research can offer an example of good practice with multiple important benefits for the sector going forward.
Blog by Michael Priestley, member of the SMaRteN Student Team in 2018/19
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