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The Office for Students (OfS) has awarded £148,281 to the University of Chester and its partners to focus on preventative strategies to support the mental wellbeing of students with Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC).

Young people and adults with ASC are at increased risk of experiencing poor mental health and wellbeing and data suggests that the intersection of these conditions has a significant impact on students’ retention and attainment, with one in three students with ASC not continuing beyond their first year of study. Individuals with ASC may hide or mask their autism leaving them totally exhausted and at risk of mental health difficulties.

Improving mental health and wellbeing for its students is embedded across all areas of University of Chester activity. Analysis has identified there are two key points where ASC students are particularly at risk of experiencing poor mental health, which the project will support - the transition to University and the transition to the workplace. A further challenge has been identified as sustaining engagement with ASC students to make sure that they are aware where and how they can access support, especially during the first few weeks of the first year.

As part of this project the University will develop an online toolkit for individuals; provide carers/parents with information and practical help to make the transition to higher education; provide holistic wellbeing support with specialist staff tailoring activities for ASC students; and job coaching support to prepare students for the work-based learning module they undertake during their second year of study. Partners, including The Bren Project, a charity offering people with learning disabilities and autism the opportunity to experience supported, bespoke work placements and the West Cheshire Autism Hub, will also be involved in delivering the project.

Continuous student engagement is planned throughout the project (where appropriate and if the students are comfortable to participate) through a number of routes including focus groups; peer-to-peer support and capturing lived experiences through discussions with the project team to inform future plans.

The University currently offers an Early Arrival Scheme for ASC students, which means they can arrive at university a day earlier than other students to allow them to familiarise themselves with the environment while it is quiet.  Following this, 100% of survey respondents said that this helped to reduce their anxiety about starting university.  This has informed the project, which will start engagement much earlier in the year to build on this success.

The University community already has a Neurodiversity Support Group, to celebrate diversity across the institution and an Active Wellbeing Programme, to support positive mental health for all, all of which complement the delivery of this project.

The University of Chester project – A Strategic Approach to Mental Health Support for Students with Autism Spectrum Condition – is part of the mental health funding competition programme: Using innovation and intersectional approaches to target mental health support for students, funded by the Office for Students. The Office for Students is the independent regulator for higher education in England. Its aim is to ensure that every student, whatever their background, has a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers.

Dr Helen Galbraith, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Student Experience, at the University of Chester, said: “The news of this funding is incredibly welcome and will enable us to further support our students to maximise the opportunities available here at the University. I would like to thank everyone involved in the application for funding, including the institution’s Disability and Inclusion team for their hard work in developing this project.

“The University of Chester has a firm focus on developing Citizen Students and this is where we encourage all students to contribute to society and achieve their full potential.”

Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students, said: “Having a mental health condition should not be a barrier to success in higher education, but for many students this is still the case. Data shows that students reporting a mental health condition are more likely to drop out, less likely to graduate with a first or 2:1, and progress into skilled work or further study – compared to students without a declared condition. We also know that students come to university or college from a range of backgrounds and that their individual journey, and the kind of support they require, is likely to be influenced by their specific circumstances. 

“That’s why this funding of targeted interventions for student mental health is so important. By paying attention to the diverse needs of students; universities and colleges can fine-tune the support they offer and ensure that all students, regardless of where they are from, have the best chance possible to succeed.

“Working with the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education, we are pleased to be able to fund projects across a range universities and colleges targeting a number of priority groups. We look forward to working with these projects to develop and evaluate innovative and collaborative approaches to targeted support for student mental health, and to support the take-up of this learning for the benefit of students in all parts of the sector.”

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