In a bid to improve staff and student mental health, some universities are creating sanctuaries out of green spaces. John Camm reports
With growing financial and other pressures on students and academics, universities have had to consider new ways of safeguarding their mental health. A report issued last year by the Royal College of Psychiatrists suggests that as many as one in four students suffers some kind of emotional problem during their time in higher education and 8 per cent seek support from counselling services. Academics' mental health is similarly at risk, with a recent report from lecturers' union Natfhe suggesting they suffer higher levels of stress than other professionals.
Some universities are looking to enhance the traditional counselling approach by adopting a holistic approach to mental health that embraces everything from one-stop help services to creating a relaxing environment in which to learn and teach.
Lancashire University's School of Health and Postgraduate Medicine, for example, is addressing issues such as sexual health, transport, building design and drugs simultaneously.
"We have not tried only to tackle mental health as an entity, but have also tried to develop a broad framework," says Mark Dooris, director of the Healthy Settings Development Unit.
It is an approach that has led to projects such as Touch. This involves student volunteers being trained by a multi-agency team to use outreach and peer-education methods to advise on drug use and harm reduction.
Another project investigates ways in which new-build and refurbishment schemes can include "green" and health-enhancing features, such as using natural light and ventilation, in social spaces. There are also plans to make the campus green, visually attractive and safe.
"All of these are important to promoting and sustaining holistic health," Dooris says.
Some universities are placing even more focus on creating a calming campus environment. Last year, Nottingham became the first university to win a Green Flag award for its parks and gardens. The awards were set up by the Civic Trust to encourage good environmental practice. The trust later decided to broaden the scope of the award to include whether parks were well used and valued by the local community.
Nottingham won the award after developing landscaped parks and gardens with features such as exotic plants and lakes on its campuses, and a garden in the centre of the main campus designed to be a "quiet oasis".
Ian Cooke, the grounds manager, says: "We have everything from exotic plants and a host of trees that have been planted to wild flower meadows that have been cultivated over the years."
For students, the green spaces not only provide a place to walk, revise, socialise and go jogging, but also offer sanctuary during stressful times.
"Many people use it for de-stressing," says Sara Kassam, the university's National Union of Students environmental and social justice officer.
"Everyone enjoys walking round the lake and students like to revise by it.
It's something they are grateful for, having so much green space. One friend said that it was nice to look out of his building and see rolling green scenery," she says.
There is also a serious side to having pleasant surroundings. A spokesperson for the mental health charity Mind says: "Having somewhere to relax and get away from the pressures of daily life is crucial and, for students, just having some green space where you can take a break or go for a gentle walk to escape from immediate stresses is an excellent idea."
But as well as benefiting students and staff, the parks and gardens have enabled the university to build links with the community. The development of the university parks has been carried out in association with Nottingham City Council, with the aim of enabling the wider community to use the parks. While the public will be able to get more out of Nottingham's grounds, the university benefits from its improved image by making it a more desirable place to study, teach and hold conferences. "We feel it's a good selling point," Cooke says.
Nottingham is hoping its Green Flag status will be retained when this year's awards, now being judged, are announced in autumn.
And what about other universities? As Karen Lewis, Green Flag awards manager at the Civic Trust, says: "It's hoped that more university applications will follow."
More details about the Green Flag awards can be found at www.civictrust.org.uk