Started MHFA training
Staff trained so far
70 support and teaching staff
The University of Sunderland is a leading anchor institution in North East England with a student population of around 20,000 and teaching and support staff of 1,400. With a high proportion of students coming from the local region, the university has a significant impact on health, culture and wellbeing within local communities. When it comes to mental health and wellbeing Sunderland subscribes to a ‘whole university’ approach and strives to encourage a culture where mental health is normalised and staff and students feel empowered to talk about their mental health.
Speaking about her outlook on staff and student wellbeing, Louise Phillipson, Head of Health, Safety and Environment at the university explains, “In recent years we’ve been trying to put the ‘health’ back into health and safety in all kinds of ways, including in our approach to mental health – this has involved everything from running wellbeing events, to setting up support groups, to provision of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training.”
It was back in 2010 that Louise first began to explore MHFA training. “A survey of our staff and students’ wellbeing highlighted a need for a greater focus on how we approach mental health internally. Following this my team and I were looking at practical ways to eliminate stigma surrounding mental illness and ways we could bring about culture change throughout the university to help normalise conversations around mental health. It was at this point that we first offered MHFA courses.
"We chose this option due to the credibility and comprehensiveness of the course content, as well as its aim being not to create experts but to teach people how to identify, understand and help a person who may be developing a mental health issue.”
A small number of Adult MHFA Two Day courses were first rolled out among selected support staff as a pilot, and following a positive reception the decision was taken to further offer the training to HR Managers, health and safety representatives and physical
first aiders. “We identified MHFA as a pragmatic way to increase awareness of mental health and wellbeing and to help to foster a university culture where staff and students are empowered to be able to talk about mental wellbeing as part of everyday
As part of the university’s ongoing wellbeing drive, a Mental Health Champions Network was established in 2015 to provide a forum for those trained in MHFA to share experiences, best practice and arrange further training and wellbeing events. This network forms an important element of the university’s strategic aim to continually improve mental health awareness and support for staff and students. This academic year alone, 678 students have been referred to student wellbeing and counselling services, highlighting how important it is to have this kind of network in place.
Louise comments, “Offering MHFA training on a voluntary basis has helped us to create a community of 45 enthusiastic Mental Health First Aiders whom we refer to as our Champions, predominantly in student-facing roles at both Sunderland and London campuses who are upskilled to support those experiencing mental health issues.
"MHFA training has played a key part in the cultural shift we’re working to achieve and has helped to spark interest in our other initiatives. We’re now seeing more referrals to our Occupational Health support team citing mental health conditions, indicating that staff feel more able to come forward, and greater involvement in our extensive programme of wellbeing events. These scheduled events are ongoing throughout the year to continually provide support and create a regular message to prevent stigma.”
The university’s approach looks to address staff and student wellbeing in equal measure, and recent staff survey results indicate a strong impact for the former, with 84% of staff agreeing that the university is effective in promoting and supporting staff wellbeing.
"We are all the university's most valuable resource. Any action we can take, no matter how small, to assist staff and students on their wellbeing journey can make a big difference and is worth doing.”
Talking about the importance of this approach, Sue Wynn, Occupational Health Manager, said: “There’s no doubt we’re living in a dramatically uncertain Higher Education environment and it’s never been more important to look after ourselves as a workforce, ensuring we are as healthy as possible, both physically and mentally - we are all the university's most valuable resource. Any action we can take, no matter how small, to assist staff and students on their wellbeing journey can make a big difference and is worth doing.”
Although the University of Sunderland’s Mental Health Champions Network is currently staff only, there are plans to train student Mental Health First Aiders and Champions as further MHFA courses are rolled out, including the recently developed Higher Education MHFA One Day course. To encourage broader representation from across the university community and to improve accessibility, Louise intends to target specific areas, such as the Student Union’s Peer network, and encourage more people to sign up to the Mental Health Champions Network.
"I look forward to continuing to develop this network in the coming years as we work collaboratively between HR and Student Services to develop our ‘whole University approach’ to mental health.”
She explains, “As well as expanding the network, we’re also investigating ways to make our Mental Health First Aiders more visible, including adding details about our Mental Health Champions Network to our student induction materials and advertising who they are and where they are based via our electronic noticeboards. I look forward to continuing to grow this network in the coming years, as we continue to work collaboratively between HR and Student Services to develop our ‘whole university approach’ to mental health”.