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Campus will be different this year

Newcastle University’s Kate Aitchison lets us know a bit more about the wellbeing measures being put in place for students, accessing therapy services online and her award-winning department.

By Jo Dunbar

Whether you’re due to drop your teenager off at university, re-commence your studies or begin your first year at university, campus life won’t be the same as usual this term. We spoke to the person overseeing student wellbeing at Newcastle University to hear how preparations are going and just what her job entails…

Can you explain your job role?

I’m head of counselling and mental health at Newcastle University. What that means is I oversee the counselling service for students as well as the mental health team who help support students to effectively engage with their studies if they’ve got long term mental health difficulties and we also provide something that we call a consultancy service which is where anyone who is concerned about the wellbeing of a Newcastle University student can give us a call, get some advice or reassurance or enable us to reach out to the student who might be in need. 

And in times of social distancing, how do students access your service?

The bulk of our therapy will remain virtual – it’s safer that way, to keep it remote. We’ve had really good feedback from students engaging in this way. Students can have therapy via telephone or via Microsoft Teams. Telephone appointments have existed for a very long time and we’ll continue doing online therapy even after restrictions are lifted because students have responded really well to that.

It’s worth noting our counselling service is located in the main student services building. There are all sorts of reasons that people will be in that building, from careers advice to finance, to getting a letter to prove you don’t need to pay council tax. Entering the building doesn’t mean everyone will necessarily know that you are going to counselling or you are struggling with something.

Your team won an award recently…

The university won outstanding student support at the Times Higher Awards in November last year. That was for something specific that we’ve worked on with our colleagues in Psychology. Newcastle has an excellent clinical psychology department, where we train psychologists and CBT therapists. We realised some of our students had waited a significant period of time within the NHS for longer term therapy.

We didn’t think it made a lot of sense, so we worked very closely with them, and some students were referred into the psychology clinic for longer term therapeutic input from both trainees and fully qualified therapists. It basically means much shorter waits for students. Getting long term support from the NHS often comes with a fairly long waiting list but also doesn’t always work with student cycle, a letter might come to a university address, possibly during a holiday period. The system works really well, the students appreciate it and we are getting really good outcomes.

How will campus look this September?

It’s not a surprise for anyone that campus will look different. How people move around campus is going to change, with a lot of one-way systems. We are asking students and teaching staff to wear masks in buildings and around campus. Campus will feel less busy. Much of the teaching provision will be online certainly for the next semester, which means that students will have less need to be on campus. We’ll have study space available for students who can’t do that in their home environments, lots of hand sanitiser stations around, too. Every student and staff member will also receive a safety pack which has information in it, a reusable mask, hand sanitiser and a thermometer.

Are you finding that your services are being accessed by more students than usual?

We tend to find we are less busy over the summer when students aren’t on campus. At the start of lockdown when the university went online and the students went home, we saw a drop in people accessing the service. Partially because people had support at home and there was no prospect of exam halls which can present anxiety in some students.

Do you have advice for students beginning their first year at uni?

Try not to compare yourself to other people, and I mean that in a number of ways: we find that people at university were often the best at their subject in their school and suddenly they’re with a cohort of people who were the best in their school. That can take some getting used to. Embrace it, you are surrounded by people who are as passionate about your subject as you are, learn from each other rather than worrying.

Every year we see people who are understandably missing friends and family, that’s really normal. That means you’ve got good relationships. It’s really easy to look on social media and see your friends are having a good time or that they aren’t missing you, when the likelihood is they feel as you do. Remember that people tend to put highlights on social media. Keep talking and communicating. Don’t make assumptions.

How about parents feeling nervous about the empty nest?

Universities are full of staff who want students to be safe and flourish and we work hard to make that happen. That’s personal tutors, people working in accommodation, people in services like mine. There’s lots of support for your child. Try to be reassured by that. Have an honest conversation with your child about expectations. If you are expecting them to be in contact every day, let them know that. We often have cases at the beginning of term where a parent is expecting a daily phone call and they haven’t heard from their child in 24 hours and they panic.

You studied in Newcastle: what do you think are the standout parts of the city for a student experience?

I say this now, but it was the same when I was a student: it’s the variety the city has to offer. You can be at the quayside vs. Tynemouth beach vs. the city centre vs. the heart of Jesmond. Everywhere has a really distinct feel and yet is only a half hour journey away. And obviously the Geordie hospitality and the feel of the city is pretty unrivalled, I think.

For more information about the student wellbeing services offered by Newcastle University visit

ncl.ac.uk/wellbeing

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