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Happiness lessons and puppies: What are unis doing to help student mental health in 2019?

Because petting a Labrador is going to sort all my problems

The current state of student mental health in the UK has been labelled a 'crisis', and studies have shown the number of students seeking help has increased by more than 50 percent in five years.

With services facing increasing demand, universities are turning to alternative methods to try and improve student mental health. But are they working?

We've taken a look at how universities are responding to these growing concerns over student welfare in 2019, and what measures they've put in place to try and aid student mental health.

Mental health alerts

Independence is one of the major perks of university, but on the flip-side are the feelings of isolation and loneliness that come with this newfound freedom. The student bubble can feel a bit disconnected from the real world and family, meaning the support network you have at home isn't as easily accessible anymore.

Which is why students are pushing for parents to be informed if their university is concerned for their wellbeing. In a recent study, two-thirds of students said they would support the disclosure of information about their mental health to their parents.

This is a scheme which Bristol University are trialling. 94 per cent of students opted in to an initiative which allows staff to contact their parents or guardians if they are experiencing difficulties.

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This comes after the father of Bristol student Ben Murray, who took his own life last year, petitioned for data protection laws to be relaxed. He felt that his son's death could have been prevented had his family been aware that he was struggling.

Lecture attendance

It's hard for unis to keep track of every student. so some unis are tracking attendance and work submission. Physics lecturer Andrew Marckwick at the University of Manchester has developed software that provides personal tutors with a single view of the data that the Physics and Astronomy department holds. This generates a score, allowing them to spot students who are at risk of falling between the cracks and check up on them.

Similar data analysis has been used at other unis, such as the University of Exeter, who now require students to check-in to each of their lectures and seminars via the iExeter app.

Wellbeing apps

On-campus counselling and CBT are so over-subscribed that unis are pointing students in the direction of online alternatives.

Apps such as 'Student Health' and 'Calm Harm', are free to download and can provide instant support for anxiety, or distractions for those at risk of self harming. Similarly, websites like SilverCloud offer eight-week courses in CBT for longer term solutions to depression and anxiety.

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Pet therapy

Forget your families, I'm pretty sure everyone can agree that the worst part of leaving home is having to say goodbye to your pets. And it's not just because they're so cute. It's actually been scientifically proven that dogs reduce stress levels.

Unfortunately bringing your dog to uni is a bit unrealistic. Most of us can't even keep our houseplants alive, let alone an animal. Unis have started bringing 'therapy dogs' onto campus as an alternative, and to try and reduce stress.

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A study found that weekly hour-long sessions with therapy dogs made students at high risk of dropping out feel "relaxed and accepted."

This initiative has been adopted by universities all around the country, with UCL, Cambridge and Nottingham Trent among those introducing the dogs. The University of Middlesex has even employed "canine teaching assistants" to combat loneliness.

Fitness courses

Exercise is probably the last thing you want to do when you're not feeling great, but dragging yourself to the gym will help release those all-important endorphins.

Gym memberships can be pricey, and it's pretty hard to find the motivation by yourself, which is why some unis are introducing fitness initiatives where students are assigned a peer mentor to encourage them to participate in regular exercise.

Bath's "Prescription for Exercise" and Bristol's "Healthy Minds" are just two examples of such schemes.

Self-help books

Another book doesn't exactly sound appealing on top of that huge pile of reading for tomorrow's seminar that you've been neglecting, but self-help books can boost your self-esteem and changing your perspective on life, which is why lots of unis are investing in a whole library's worth of them.

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Bath is one university that has already dedicated part of their library to books on mental-wellbeing. Their 'Read Well' collection has over 50 books available to borrow or access online, covering a wide range of topics.


Nightlines are one of the most valuable mental health services at uni, yet they often go unrecognised. Run by student volunteers, they provide an anonymous and confidential phone service, giving emotional support and information to students seeking help between the hours of 6pm and 8am.

Happiness lessons

Bristol Uni introduced a 12-week course exploring happiness and how to achieve it. It counts for 20 of the 120 credits students take per year.

Students will select one of seven happiness exercises to practice for a week, assessing the effect it has on their mental health. They then discuss this at weekly 'happiness hub' meetings. Exercises include sleeping, meditating, savouring enjoyment, expressing gratitude, and practising random acts of kindness.

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But is it enough, or do universities need to invest more into student counsellors, paid professionals and mental health experts?

UCL grad Serena told The Tab: "It's actually pretty pathetic what they're doing. The puppies are cute obviously but they're no replacement for properly funded interventions and well trained staff.

"I think it's telling as well that at some unis student numbers have more than doubled and student services are way behind. It shows that universities are putting profit over the wellbeing of their students."

Katie, who is in her third year at Sussex, said: "Students' Unions do an amazing job and their effort is so appreciated, but when the unis don’t bother to take action against staff or address the things that are really actually affecting students like isolating accommodation, I don’t think unis as a whole do enough. SUs aren't given the power they need to really help people; but the work they do is fantastic.

"Also think the waiting lists are far too long for counselling and therapy given the amount of staff that could be hired to help people if there was a cut in Vice-Chancellor salaries."

Related stories recommended by this writer:

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• How to be a good friend to anyone with mental health issues