There's something in the air. Change, turmoil and uncertainty is working its way out through a need for help. Do you feel it? One Higher Education comms person is seeing it too.
by Julie Waddicor
We’re around five weeks into the new term at my University and many of my colleagues are shell-shocked. Demand for our support services - counselling, wellbeing, academic support - is through the roof. Our waiting lists are already at a level they don’t normally reach until the end of November and high levels of demand began even before term officially started.
Having only worked in higher education for a year I have no comparison but my co-workers tell me this is unprecedented. We’re putting in extra support with more staff and increased comms around our offer but it’s a challenging situation with levels of demand up over 150% on this time last year.
We’re not alone. Conversations with colleagues across the HE sector reveal that large numbers of universities are experiencing the same thing and it’s a similar picture across the public sector: the NHS and local authorities have seen increased demand from an ageing population for some years and recently from those in mental health, homelessness or financial crisis. I’d not really linked it all up until this week when I read an extraordinarily moving article by Tom Francis (a pseudonym) about his work with the Samaritans and their need for more volunteers to support the escalating demand they are experiencing too.
So what is going on? Nobody really knows, but lots of suggestions have been made - social media, mobile phones - which reminds me of the mass panic about ‘video-nasties’ in the 80s and computer games in the 90s. Certain sections of the media have been referring to people - often students - who ask for help as ‘snowflakes’ who should just man up and deal with the real world. Not that it will make any difference, but they should drop that term, and the unkind and dismissive tone that goes with it, right now. Anyone who has ever experienced any sort of mental distress knows that asking for help is hard and often isn’t done quickly enough. Those who come forward have found the strength to do so and should be applauded. So stop it now. I’m talking to you, Daily Mail. Come and spend a day with our counselling team and see how you deal with a young person who is suicidal, and then dare to use that term again.
The reasons for the current crisis are probably many and various. In wider society the lack of a safety net, job instability and the uncertainty of Brexit may be having an impact. I’ve been working on audience segmentation again recently and refreshing my memory on ‘value modes’. The value modes tool suggests that a good third of the population are ‘Settlers’: people who dislike change, want certainty and prioritise stability. For people in that group the current climate is an unsettling one. For students the pressures of debt, academic expectation and worries over future job prospects are likely to be having a significant impact too. Gone are the days when students had the time to protest, spend days in the bar and pontificate on the meaning of life. Now they’re working part time alongside full time study to make ends meet (by our recent calculations the money available to a student through loans falls short of the minimum they need to live on by around £2,000 per year. If Mum and Dad can’t help, or you’re a mature student or don’t have family support, then that money has to come from somewhere).
So what can we do as communications professionals to help? It’s a tough one: the issues are bigger than us and our organisations, and we can’t just promote the services we do have on offer as demand is already outstripping supply.
The issues are huge, but we can’t just stand by. At Salford we’ve come up with three methods to try to see if they have any impact:
· Help all our staff to have basic support skills - we’re writing content that ensures our academic staff, who are very much the front-line with students, know how to signpost well, can offer basic support effectively and know when to call in the professional counselling team. Whilst this won’t stop the demand in itself, it will hopefully channel it down the right paths first time and ensure we pick up people really quickly when we need to.
· Online support that reaches many - our Student Union recently created a wellbeing app that provides basic support, signposting and encouragement to eat, sleep and exercise well. We’re working with them to increase uptake which again my help those with lower level needs and prevent them from needing one to one support.
· Redesign of services - comms knowledge across our organisation is at a fairly early stage and many people still feel that more comms is the answer to everything. In this case it’s not: we need to make sure our products are right and meeting need every time we touch one of our students. We simply don’t have the capacity to do otherwise. So we’re working with our services to analyse the data on the demand we’re experiencing now, and have in the past, to understand who needs our help and when. The service will then create targeted support that meets that need and we’ll sell it in to the right people at the right time, hopefully before they get into crisis.
This is a time of huge social change, reducing budgets (still) and a crisis of confidence at many levels of society. It’s incredibly tough, but we can play a part in helping people get through even if we can’t fix the problems. More comms is not the answer but more targeted comms could be. If we can make people feel like they’ve got an ally and a support net then they may not get as far as needing it, or will only need a light touch to be able to find their feet again. All of us in the public sector are firefighting against demand - if we can find time to step away and design some new solutions we might be able to help society through one of the biggest wobbles any of us have ever experienced.
Julie Waddicor is Head of Student Experience and Engagement, The University of Salford.
Picture credit: LSE Library / Flickr