Mental health and wellbeing column: Student Union support

Natalie Roe
Thursday, June 1, 2023

Maintaining wellbeing and positive mental health can be a challenge for many conservatoire students. Natalie Roe, Students’ Union president at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, shares the positive steps her team takes to support students in their care.

 Natalie Roe, Student Union president at RWCMD
Natalie Roe, Student Union president at RWCMD

Laura Malmivaara

The Students’ Union (SU) sits at the heart of student life and is central to supporting a positive student experience. As SU president (which is a full-time paid role) and a Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama (RWCMD) graduate, I work with an officer team made up of students studying at the college, who bring direct experience of RWCMD life.

As student life continues to evolve alongside everyday culture, we want to support every student’s creativity and welfare as much as possible through the ‘best years of their life’. This is why, in addition to supporting the all-important social side of college life, one of our key priorities is wellbeing and mental health.

Location, location, location

As the college is a small and specialist institution, with a student population of around 800 students, who come from more than 40 countries, our SU team can have much more direct communication and engagement with students. This also means that we can tailor campaigns, activities and signposting to support specific needs. We have found that the physical location and working relationship between the SU and college have a really positive impact on student wellbeing.

By sharing an office with Student Services, we have direct communication and collaboration across departments, crucial to partnership working in support of students’ mental health. Although there are strict boundaries between teams, departments work hand-in-hand to signpost appropriate support or respond to feedback from students.

A joined-up approach

Another key element is that the SU works closely with college staff, particularly the senior management team, focusing on a joined-up approach to student welfare. A recent collaboration involved setting up and hosting ‘Talking Heads’ – a series of panel talks to address topics around identity, wellbeing and sustainability. These involved staff and students and stimulated important conversations about past and present experiences as a creative.

The RWCMD community is friendly and welcoming, supported and enhanced by our active SU space. This is especially important for an institution with intense creative courses, and plays an important part in wellbeing. It enables students to create life-long friends, colleagues, and support networks as they enter employment.

Constantly evolving

The SU team feel it is important to keep up to date with the latest training and thinking, supported by the student services team. Earlier this year, SU welfare officer Ella and I gained mental health first-aid qualifications, which help us better support students who might come to us directly. We also offer practical help and support. For example, our ‘Wellbeing Wednesdays’ have proved to be a great success: each week we offer a new activity, ranging from fun holistic tasks like Easter egg hunts and circus skills, to more practical topics such as how to prepare for your practice and how to deal with stress.

Through these dedicated regular days, we have also considered how to support students with the cost-of-living crisis, including giving out food parcels with the ingredients to make a meal for a student house or to batch-cook for the week. Although it is important to have the fun and de-stressing activities, we’ve seen huge engagement in these more direct campaigns.

Supporting staff and students

The college and SU continuously adapt the induction and freshers’ periods to ensure they provide the best welcome to RWCMD, reflecting what the students need; making sure we prepare them for their years of study, and for living away from home.

With the new cohort spending much of their previous years studying online, we developed a Fresher’s Fortnight timetable, spreading events across a longer timeframe and balancing party events with non-alcohol centred, hands-on activities. The induction and freshers’ weeks are scheduled during the first two weeks of the academic term and offer many opportunities for students to collaborate college-wide in creative and inter-disciplinary projects, as well as in social events, to meet peers on the same or different courses.

As the summer months roll in, the SU is looking forward to taking advantage of the college’s beautiful setting by hosting activities in Bute Park. This will include group walks, friendly sports games, and picnics in the park as well as more collaborative projects with the college staff to benefit both student and staff morale and wellbeing.