For this year's edition of Verdict magazine, we sat down with Keith Houghton, our Head of Student Support Services, and asked him to delve into his position and responsibilities at the University. Given the shift towards remote learning brought on by the pandemic, Houghton reveals how we have endeavoured to implement technology to enhance our support services and reach out to students struggling with their mental health. In particular, Houghton refers to our Student Wellbeing App, launched in late 2020, as a key tool for students to improve their welfare.
Can you briefly tell us about your background and your role at The University of Law?
I studied Law & Economics at Brunel University and subsequently spent a year as sabbatical VP Education and Welfare in the Students’ Union, worked in banking and legal publishing (Sweet & Maxwell) and since then have spent over 20 years at two other HE Providers in student support roles. I have been Head of Student Support Services at the university since May 2020. In my current role, I have oversight of Disability & Inclusion, Study Skills, Money & Housing Advice, as well as the Wellbeing Service which includes Wellbeing Advice, Mental Health, and Counselling support.
What support does the universityoffer to students experiencing symptoms of mental ill-health?
All students can access support through their campus-based Student Wellbeing Advisor in the first instance. Additionally,drop-in sessions and appointments are available – and where appropriate, they might be referred on for specialist support either from a Mental Health Advisor or the counselling service through our partners Spectrum Life. Spectrum Life offers a 24/7 helpline for in-the-moment support. It is important to remember that we cannot provide an emergency service so any student who is in an emergency situation should call 999 or go to their nearest A&E or Urgent Care Centre.
Could you tell me about the ULaw wellbeing app, which you helped launch, and how it works? How else is the universityusing technology to support students’ mental health and wellbeing?
The ULaw Wellbeing app puts all of our student support and wellbeing information, plus information about local and national support to our campuses in one accessible place. Information is tailored to each of our campus locations. The app also contains a range of podcasts and other resources on topics ranging from mindfulness to productivity, confidence, and managing stress and anxiety. A recent addition is ‘Charley’ a digital wellbeing coach to help students focus on self-care. Our partnership with Spectrum Life also gives students access to their digital wellbeing platform including an online gym, health and wellbeing resources, and the ‘Benefits Hub’ which gives access to a wide range of discounts on goods and services.
I’d really encourage all students (and staff) to download the ULaw Wellbeing App for free from the Apple App Store or Google Play.
What do you think is the greatest cause of stress for students?
I think this differs depending on where we are in the academic year. At the start of the year, it can be adjusting to studying and getting used to new routines and effective study methods, especially effectively managing time. The Universityhas an excellent Study Skills service available to students, which provides webinars and one-to-one support on things like time management, reading and note taking, effective study strategies and legal writing – all supported by an extensive library of online resources.
Exam and assessment deadlines are obvious pressure points that can lead to heightened stress and anxiety. The resources available through the Wellbeing app can help as can our Wellbeing and Study Skills team – my key message here would be don’t be afraid to reach out for help and support.
Did you witness a difference in the support students required during the pandemic owing to courses moving online?
At the start of the pandemic, with the switch to online delivery, we made sure to keep in close contact with some of our most vulnerable students and offered regular check-in calls from the Wellbeing team which were well received. We also saw an increased need for support with computer equipment which we provided through our Digital Hardship Fund. It was also a challenge for our services moving from mainly face-to-face delivery to entirely online.
As we come out of the pandemic, we have moved to a hybrid model of service delivery as students have told us they are very happy to access support services via telephone and video call.
What advice would you give to law students struggling with their mental health and wellbeing and/or to prepare them for a career in law?
The first thing I would say is that you are by no means alone. Talking about your mental health with a friend or a professional can be incredibly therapeutic. Our support services are confidential – we do not tell tutors or firms that a student has accessed services (unless the student asks us to) – and can provide a space to talk and receive support to enhance wellbeing. In addition to our Wellbeingservices, there is a wide range of external support including Student Space, Samaritans, and CALM, all of whom provide free and confidential spaces to learn strategies for improving mental health and wellbeing.
You’re responsible for the wider student support service,including wellbeing,at The University of Law. What are your plans for this service moving forward?
To continue to provide services that address the needs of and are responsive to our students and which are informed by evidence-based practice and student feedback. I am also keen to explore how technology can be used to enhance our services and provide additional choice to students in how they access services.
The university has recently joined the University Mental Health Charter so we will be spending time over the coming year or so working through the Framework with the aim of applying for the Charter Award to demonstrate our commitment to a whole University approach to mental health support.