As the demands on students in Higher Education (HE) continue to rise, so does the recognition of the critical role mental health plays in their overall well-being. No one understands this more than Nic Streatfield, Director for Student Life and Wellbeing at the University of York, who has used his background in counselling to put mental health at the forefront of the conversation.
Nic met with GoodCourse, to discuss issues ranging from promoting inclusivity and addressing harassment to prioritising mental health and engaging students outside the classroom.
I’m the Director of Student Life and Wellbeing at the University of York. We’re a Russell Group institution made up of 11 colleges which all have their own distinct identities. I’ve been here for around a year now, and I have a pretty broad portfolio that covers student well-being, disability support, campus safety, conduct and respect, college life, and our student support teams which include supporting international students.
I did a degree in Peace Studies at Bradford University. When I started, I thought I would save the world, but I soon realised that might have been too ambitious! Then I realised that the best path would be to help people instead — one individual at a time. So I trained to become a counsellor and a psychotherapist. I’m interested in working with younger people, as that’s where I feel I can have the most impact. I lived in Australia for four years, where I did my training as a counsellor. When I returned to the UK, I first got into education by working voluntarily before I started working in student counselling services. I’ve been working in the field ever since.
Here at York, we are blessed with a collegiate culture. In each of our eleven colleges, we have staff dedicated to welfare and community-building. Every college has a unique identity: a lot of that is built through competition, especially sports. We work closely with the Students’ Union to encourage engagement: this year, we have over 2,200 students enrolled in sports teams. We also have a fantastic college music program that allows students to access instruments and facilities at affordable prices. Our STYCs and STYMs program allows senior students to provide guidance and mentorship for first-year students. We understand not everyone is comfortable approaching others, so we’ve invested in an app called “Student Connect” to allow students to match based on common interests. We’re also aware that some of our students are caregivers, so we’ve created personalised social programs to help those students create networks on campus. Like many universities, we’re hugely concerned about the cost of living, so we’re providing support through hardship funds and energy grants. We also provide free meals every week: in a single term, we gave out over 11,000 meals to students. It’s a great way to build togetherness. We’ve also had designated cost-of-living ambassadors, or COLAs, to offer advice and support for students experiencing hardship. Finally, we’ve partnered with Talk Campus, an online peer-support program that supports students with their mental health needs.
I’ve already mentioned the COLAs, but I’ve also rewritten our safeguarding policy and process. It’s now a lot clearer and has established a local network of safeguarding officers. We’re getting staff from every department to attend ongoing training sessions and peer support meetings. We want staff to be able to identify safeguarding issues and know what to do in those situations. We are looking to work with city partners on a campaign called “All About Respect”, which was designed by students to prevent sexual harassment. We worked closely with colleges, the city, and the police to create a unified message and are now delivering bystander training for students. We worked closely with sports clubs and student groups to prioritise preventative action — this week, we have the “Roses” competition between Lancaster and York, and the proceeds will go to charities supporting survivors of sexual violence.
Active listening skills and an empathetic approach are invaluable. All good managers need those skills — you don’t need to come from a therapeutic background. But that knowledge comes in handy when anxiety is high: over 20 years, I’ve been through many crises, so I have some experience guiding people through that. When you come across someone having a hard time, you need to try and see their point of view if you want to help them. I try to be calm, approachable, and patient. Ten years ago, mental health was barely on the agenda for universities or the government. But just yesterday it was being discussed in Parliament. So it’s encouraging to see a greater focus on mental health — but there’s still a long way to go.
Here at York, I stepped into an excellent set-up, so I can’t take credit in any way. Our Conduct and Respect team does fantastic work, and they’re leading the way in many respects. Ten years ago, people weren’t talking about harassment, but since then we’ve made huge progress. We now have an anonymous reporting tool and have established processes to support students who have been affected. Our recent audit was a success, and we’ve brought in a specialist lawyer to help us review our systems. We also publicly share our sexual violence action plan; it’s a top priority for our university, and we’re lucky to have a capable and knowledgeable team to support that.
It’s so difficult. Our students are adults, so they can choose where they participate. Like most of us, students engage with things they feel are relevant to them. We don’t make anything mandatory, but we are seeing massive participation in programs such as our active bystander training and sexual consent workshops. Over time, we’ll look to identify any gaps in our approach so we can move to address them.