Dr Martin Watts explains how essential mental health and wellbeing skills are being embedded into the Arts and Humanities Foundation Year curriculum.

In a recent survey reported by The Guardian, over 90% of university students wanted their institutions to offer lessons in how to look after their mental health and wellbeing, helping them to cope with issues such as anxiety, loneliness and stress.

For our Foundation Year students studying Arts and Humanities we have recently introduced a compulsory module, which is studied during their first semester, to help them transition into university life and take proactive steps to look after their own mental health and wellbeing.

This time last year, as the 4th cohort of our popular Arts and Humanities Foundation year was settling in, we reviewed all modules in the usual annual manner, and were struck by the number of students requiring mental health and wellbeing support.

The Arts and Humanities Foundation year started in 2015 and the number of students on the programme has grown from 26 to over 120, with the proportion of students arriving with declared mental health issues and other disabilities increasing year on year.

By the end of the 2017/18 year those students who declared a mental health issue peaked at almost 40%. The effect of this was to stretch the excellent University support services and, when referrals were made to the NHS, delays in appointments meant that some students were struggling to complete their course and failing to enjoy university life.

At the annual review of the programme it was decided that a proactive approach was needed, to ease pressure on the existing reactive system and to ensure that support was delivered up front as early as possible. The Foundation Year team decided that the best way to achieve this was to embed a compulsory support module within the first semester, with the objective of placing students in charge of their own wellbeing and university life.

This new module, ‘Life and Study’ was devised in collaboration with colleagues from the chaplaincy, employability, student support and wellbeing and sports science departments, all of whom offered encouragement and support. ‘Life and Study’ was subsequently validated earlier this year and is now 3 weeks into its first presentation.

The module consists of several sections delivered by front line staff from all of the aforementioned departments, supplemented by academic group leaders who run seminars enabling students to reflect on what they have learned. Students are then encouraged to apply this knowledge and practice to their own situation, as they seek to obtain a healthy work and study life balance.

One of the major benefits of this delivery is that all students are introduced to expert colleagues who are devoted to their wellbeing just after arrival at university. The sessions, delivered by our professionals, also enables colleagues to establish a good understanding of our student cohort, and the interaction facilitated by active learning not only builds a supportive team environment, but also ensures that everyone, in a typically diverse cohort, feels included in what is a burgeoning academic and scholarly community. 

Each section of the module runs over 2 or 3 weeks and consists of lectures, presentations and activities, followed by the group seminars mentioned above. The academic skills part of the module is also covered in the seminars with students being introduced to critical reading and summarising of key texts, related to each section in turn. For example, the first section, delivered by the chaplaincy, focuses on the purpose of university and what it means to be a human being, with a key academic text concentrating on the philosophical debate covering post enlightenment education.

Whilst we are still at an early stage, attendance has been very high (90% +) and the students are responding well to the lectures and seminar activities. We will continue to review and assess this new module to ensure that our students are able to thrive in their new environment, and enjoy their academic journey and university experience at Christ Church.

Dr Martin Watts is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Programme Director for the Faculty of Arts and Humanities Foundation Year.