Our first blog is written by Madeleine Siniscalchi, a student partner in the project from the University of Manchester.
Student coproduction and evaluation
We’re so excited to be part of the Student Mental Health Partnerships Project funded by the Office for Students. Our project, evaluating the Greater Manchester Universities’ Student Mental Health Service (GMUSMHS), is one of the 5 NHS-higher education partnership hubs (funded by the Office for Students) that have developed across the country in efforts to meet the rising demand for student mental health support. We aim to evaluate and help develop the Greater Manchester Mental Health Service and its relationships with the five Greater Manchester higher education institutions and third sector mental health organizations. We are exploring the experiences of GMUSMHS users hoping to raise their voices and highlight why this service is so important to students’ health, wellbeing, and university outcomes.
Partnerships do not stop at the institutional level though. Our student co-production project team is made from a group of students representing all five Greater Manchester higher education institutes: University of Manchester, University of Salford, University of Bolton, the Royal Northern College of Music, and Manchester Metropolitan University. In addition, our team hails from all different disciplines. Among us, we cover degrees in psychology, social policy, political science, music, medicine, health and social care, and biomedical science. This wide-ranging set of skills and experiences allows us to bring many perspectives to our work and better connect with the students we work with.
The obvious link to a project like this is with our psychology student partners, many of whom are well versed in the clinical language of the GMMHS, psychological research practices, and have a solid foundational knowledge of the various mental health issues students are living. This is vital in our evaluation design, data analysis, and navigation through partnerships with various mental health services. In many instances, they’ve been able to act as translators between the technical language of the service staff, and the student experience.
Of course, no student lives in a service-student vacuum. Our lives, opportunities, and access to support are a direct result of our social and public health policies, and our partners in political science, governance, public and social policy know well how the intersection of these policies can affect the lives and experiences of the students we work with. These partners scrutinize everything from child poverty to gender inequality and unfortunately many service users are deeply familiar with the flaws in our systems. If we fail to take into account the context of students’ lives, we only paint half a picture. Our partners also have experience in social research skills, data protection, and presenting this information in engaging and accessible ways.
Our partners in medicine and biomedical science understand that mental health is not just mental. Many of our service users come with complex trauma or generational mental health problems which are stored in the body. On a wider scale, they believe that many public health issues are a result of poor mental health.
The student partners studying music are perhaps a less obvious choice. However, these partners have experience building and working with student communities, whether through the Students’ Union, education and community projects, or working with young people with special emotional and educational needs. They’ve been able to help our team connect with service users and empower them to authentically share their stories.
Our diverse range of skills has helped us to design and deliver several workshops for service users of the GMUSMHS to share their experiences with the service. We’ve written a report for the board of the GMUSMHS and fed back to the Clinical Reference and Operations Groups, and used this initial work to inform our next steps. We are currently designing and delivering the second set of workshops to collect a more in-depth view of the student service user experience.
Under our project coordinator, our team has a unique way of working that allows us to bring the skills learned through our courses and other positions into this role. Some of our partners have co-hosted training sessions for the team on areas specific to their expertise and course material (such as facilitation or data protection) so the team can learn from each other more formally.
Our ability to carry out this project while also being full time students is in large part because we focus heavily on teamwork, and since the beginning have been building lines of communication and trust within the team. As the role has progressed, we’ve taken more initiative and been encouraged to take on more responsibility for the direction of our evaluation. This trust and empowerment within the team is a result of the co-production ethos that has existed as a part of this project even before our hiring.
Co-production (when students and institutions make joint decisions on process and outcomes) is essential to our project because the student mental health landscape is constantly changing. Co-production respects the student service users as well as our student partners as having valuable insight and expertise into the student experience and student mental health services. We believe this respect and communication between institutions, staff, and students is essential to healthy dialogue and partnerships about student mental health.
If you’d like to hear more about our work please feel free to contact us at Madeleine.Siniscalchi@manchester.ac.uk.