As part of our Student Experience series, Rebecca Woolley from the University of Warwick shares their Study Happy programme with Alice in Libraryland tea parties and mindfulness sessions for students. The library offers a range of activities and aim to improve the whole student experience.
Since October 2014, the Library at Warwick University has two Community Engagement teams (one for postgraduates and one for undergraduates) devoted to encouraging students to take a break and join in activities to help them feel less stressed and feel part of the Warwick community. Our focus is on events. The resources we deal with include spring rolls and jigsaw puzzles rather than books and journals. Not what you would normally expect from a Library perhaps?
Why do we do this? There is a well-documented rise in reported levels of stress and mental health problems across the sector (e.g. see this UUK report), but most universities are responding to this through their Wellbeing Support Services and Warwick similarly does so. Where the Library can play its part, however, is to raise awareness of the issues and provide light-touch support. We are well placed to do this because the Library and our study spaces are where the students like to study and often socialise. Long hours spent in the Library means they feel at home, get to know us and often tell us things they might not tell their supervisors.
Five ways to wellbeing: from mindfulness to Alice in Libraryland
Our Study Happy programme now runs throughout the year rather than just at exam time (when we found students were already locked in to an unhealthy approach to revision) and includes activities that encourage playfulness and creativity such as learning to play the ukulele, adult colouring, games and puzzles afternoons. Our programme is based around the five ways to wellbeing:
- Keep learning – e.g. learning/sharing a language at The Library Language Exchange
- Be active – e.g. yoga and table tennis, the Library working with Warwick Sport
- Connect – peer networking activities, often around a cultural tradition
- Give – sharing a language and giving to charity
- Take notice – mindfulness
Not surprisingly, food forms an important element of what we do. Students can drop-in to most events for a brief 15 minutes to recharge their batteries or stay longer, enjoying the company, refreshments and the activities. Our Alice in Libraryland tea party for University Mental Health Day/World Book Day was particularly popular.
An important part of the programme, alongside the fun stuff, are the mindfulness sessions. Mindfulness has been shown to help with relaxation and reduce anxiety by encouraging a focus on the present (see this video from Jon Kabat-Zinn) . We employ a Warwick tutor to run a weekly hour long session. A typical session will cover:
- A guided practice to focus on their breath, slowing it down to make attendees feel calm
- A body scan practice – becoming aware of how each part of the body is feeling and then consciously relaxing
- Discussions about mindfulness, its benefits and the science behind it
- A further guided practice – focussing on the mind to develop mindfulness techniques
To supplement the face to face sessions, we have also developed The Mindful Library: a set of online resources with the guided practices available at all times to students through Moodle.
Helping the whole student to succeed
Through our range of activities we aim to improve the student experience. We try to create a sense of belonging for students to guard against isolation. Getting students to think about their wellbeing and see the health benefits of breaks and relaxation practices from the outset helps them to develop good practice and build resilience to cope with stress points on the student journey and ultimately be more resilient. We are a valuable first point of information and referral to help them tackle problems before they go too far. We see ourselves at one end of a coordinated wellbeing support spectrum offering light touch support and engaging with the students. The Outreach Wellbeing advisers, two of whom work in the Library alongside the Community Engagement teams, offer specific support around helping students improve their mental wellbeing, whilst the University’s Wellbeing Support Services provide support for those students at the other end of the spectrum who are really struggling with their mental health and need specialist help
The value of what we do can be seen by the comments from students after the PAT dogs’ visit – our most popular and ticketed event. Four to six volunteers from the charity Pets as Therapy bring their dogs for small groups of students to pat for 15 minutes. With typical hyperbole, the students rate these sessions highly:
“You’ve made my day”
“Cutest dogs ever”, “After a bad week this was just what I needed. Nearly cried from happiness, and already feel calmer. Best. Event. Ever.”
This event is also an excellent opportunity for the Outreach Wellbeing Advisers to be on hand, give out information and talk to students.
One of the Library’s strategic aims is “Helping the whole student to succeed”. We firmly believe that a happy student is more likely to be a successful student. This is why we help them to Study Happy.
We would love to know what others do to help their students?
Universities UK, Student mental wellbeing in higher education: good practice guide. London: Universities UK, 2015, http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Pages/student-mental-wellbeing-in-higher-education.aspx
Kabat-Zinn, J. What is mindfulness?. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmEo6RI4Wvs