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Interview with Andy Shanks, the University of Edinburgh’s Director of Student Wellbeing

ByMollie O'Hara

Nov 12, 2017

As a qualified Mental Health Officer with over 18 years’ of experience in the mental health sector, Andy Shanks is the recently appointed Director of Student Wellbeing at the University of Edinburgh. Despite acquiring directorship only 3 months ago, it is recognisable that student welfare has been a primary concern here at Edinburgh for some 47 years.

There are a wide range of factors which can be connected to a student’s physical and mental health, relating to self-esteem, personal resilience and self-confidence. Promoting positive wellbeing encompasses the idea of balancing stress with productivity in order to enable every student to achieve their potential. Services at the university focus particularly on the use of an asset-based model in order to achieve this aim, placing the focus on a student’s strengths rather than their weaknesses.

The market research company YouGov conducted a study in 2015 which revealed that 25% of university students in the UK suffer from mental health issues. As Andy highlights, “the academic process places immense pressure on students, both postgraduate and undergraduate. Exams and assignment deadlines are particularly challenging”.

In response to this issue, the university launched the Student Mental Health Strategy in April of this year with the aim of raising awareness about mental health at the university. The document largely outlines how the university is to achieve recognition as a community which promotes and provides effective mental health. The strategy is currently in the early stages of implementation, however Andy is confident that there is “a strong platform from which to move forward [through] evidence of strong stakeholder engagement and excellent partnership working”.

There are several key teams which currently provide support to University of Edinburgh students. As well as being free, services “offer a wide range of interventions”. The Student Counselling Service (SCS) and the Student Disability Service (SDS) can be found initially within the University Library on George Square, however services can be delivered at several buildings across the University site where flexibility is possible. Support by the SCS can be received face to face through their appointment system, by email, online or through small group events. Often students “are surprised by the range of support which we can propose or put in place”. In particular, the range of TED talks and APPs identified for student use have received encouraging feedback, “97% of students are very positive about our group activities.”

The Chaplaincy offers a drop in service for students located on Bristo Square as well as a 24/7 on-call service for death and critical incidents. With this additional service comes the possibility for group as well as individual support. Currently this service is promoting discussion around the issue of loneliness, “most of these conversations are held across all members [of the University of Edinburgh]  so that students and staff get to speak with one another as equals”.

The SDS offers all available services to students with a need for support with their learning. In academic year 2016/17, 4,193 students disclosed a disability which saw an increase of 15% on the previous year. This represents 10.6% of the total student cohort at the university.” Responses to students are usually within 3-5 working days and often solutions are found through exam adjustments, mainly extra time.

As well as these core services, students also have access to the large GP Practice on campus. Additionally, each of the 22 schools within the University are responsible for providing front-line support to their students. Numerous associations also direct their focus to mental health and wellbeing.

Students can find comprehensive information on all services on the individual service websites, the University website pages, events on MyEd, liaising with the Advice Place and EUSA, and the SCS contact email address is on every student card.

“Most importantly”, Andy concludes, “talking about feeling low or feeling that we are not coping, and asking for help, is a real strength- we should all always look for support. Whatever your background or value-system, we have services which are set up to support students, and it is a strength to be able to ask for help”.


image: Startupstockphotos via pixabay

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