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Scaling the wall: Nonesuch 2017

5 April 2017

Big White Wall, a safe online community offering peer and professional support, is allowing Bristol to help more students with mental health difficulties get the assistance they need to achieve their full potential.

In common with the rest of the higher education sector, the University of Bristol has seen a significant increase over the past few years in the proportion of our student population seeking support for emotional, psychological and mental health issues.

‘Students these days feel under increasing pressure to perform,’ says Mark Ames, Director of Student Services. ‘Coming to university is now a major financial investment, and students are aware that competition for good quality graduate jobs is increasingly fierce. The prevalence of social media also means that today’s students are constantly comparing and contrasting the edited highlights of each others’ lives which can sometimes have negative effects on their confidence and mental health.’

The University provides a range of support to students throughout their time at Bristol: each residence has a pastoral team comprising a warden, deputy warden and student support adviser; and, within their Schools, students are allocated a personal tutor to help with their academic, professional and personal development. A range of more specialist services is also available for those needing further assistance, including the Students’ Health Service, Student Counselling Service and Chaplaincy.

Safety and anonymity

However, with one in two GP appointments in the Students’ Health Service being mental health-related, the Student Counselling Service working at the limits of its capacity, and the Vulnerable Students’ Support Service handling a 70 per cent increase in casework since last year, additional ways of providing individual support are clearly needed. Moreover, students themselves have indicated that they want a place outside other University services where they can raise mental health issues. That’s where the Big White Wall (BWW) comes in. Available 24/7 and completely anonymous, BWW is an online community for people who are anxious, down or not coping. It provides a space where they can share what’s troubling them, and offer help and support to each other. Professionally trained ‘Wall Guides’ operate in the background to ensure the safety and anonymity of members.

Established in 2007 by social entrepreneur Jen Hyatt, BWW is used across the UK by other universities, the NHS, service personnel and various employers. It was inspired by a project on a London housing estate where, prior to demolition, the local community painted their homes white and were encouraged to express their thoughts about the estate through words and pictures applied directly to the walls.

Last year, a pilot study, part-funded by alumni donations, was undertaken at Bristol to test BWW’s suitability as a supplement to the University’s existing mental health support provision. The site proved popular with students, who particularly valued the fact it can be accessed anonymously and is available all the time, with half of logins taking place in the evenings, overnight and at weekends when the University’s other services are closed or significantly reduced.

‘You can vent how you’re feeling, in a safe way, when it might not be a good time to call friends or family, such as the middle of the night,’ says one Bristol student who used BWW. ‘The anonymity also makes it easier to talk about things that you might not feel you can share with people you know for fear of worrying them more than necessary.’

The online aspect of BWW was also part of its attraction: ‘It can seem less intimidating to share your problems online than speaking to someone face to face,’ another Bristol user says. ‘Such forums have made finding those with similar issues to you easier than ever, and it’s only a short step between reading about the issues of others and posting your own.’

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Around half of students who responded to a pilot project questionnaire said the support they had received from BWW helped them do better in their academic work. More than two thirds said it had improved their student experience and just over half said it had helped them seek further support. As a result, Big White Wall will now be available to all Bristol students this year, thanks in part to funding from our generous community of alumni and friends.

‘It was really helpful that alumni were prepared to support the pilot study of Big White Wall, both financially and by offering advice on the evaluation,’ adds Ames. ‘This is a great example of how we can use alumni donations to test new approaches and get an evidence base for something that could become a core part of University provision.’

Further information

Images above are part of a compelling ManKind campaign by history student Olivia Huxtable, urging people to address the stigma surrounding male mental health and suicide. 

For more information on how you can help support students at Bristol, please visit our Give back pages.