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A look inside mental wellbeing initiatives with Claire Hunter and Matt Walker

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University Mental Health Day on 14 March is designed to inspire conversations, take action and create change.

Two members of staff who have been working hard to do all that and more, are Claire Hunter and Matt Walker.

Claire, from our Human Resources and Organisation Development department (HR-OD), and Matt from Student Support and Wellbeing, are part of a team of colleagues from across the University who have been implementing improvements to help staff and students access support for mental health and wellbeing.

To find out more about their work and some of the support available at Durham, Claire and Matt took time out to chat with Dialogue magazine.

What are your roles at the University?

Matt said: "I’m a Public Health Advanced Practitioner from Durham County Council, seconded to the Student Support and Wellbeing directorate to implement the Health and Wellbeing Strategy."

We’re the first university and local authority to develop such a partnership role, and I’m currently co-ordinating our application for University Mental Health Charter status.

Claire said: “I’m Head of Organisation Development Business Partnering in HR-OD. My portfolio covers staff wellbeing, so I’ve been working with colleagues from different teams to implement new initiatives and progress existing support to help improve wellbeing for all colleagues.”

What mental wellbeing support has been developed at the University over the past few years?

Claire said: “On the staff side, there’s a lot been done! Staff Mental Health First Aiders were introduced in 2022 to support colleagues experiencing distress or mental health difficulties. Last year, Workplace Passports were launched to record reasonable adjustments for staff members with disabilities or long-term health conditions.

“We also launched a new required learning course in January to help managers support employee mental health and wellbeing.

“We run a range of events, such as health and wellbeing workshops to enhance people’s knowledge and confidence around mental health. The monthly Wellbeing Cafés promote wellbeing issues and support among colleagues, and we’re also helping people to get active with lunchtime Wellbeing Walks and yoga sessions after work.

“All of this is underpinned by the joint staff and student Health & Wellbeing calendar to raise awareness of important topics.

“Working with Matt, we’re also applying for the University to be accredited with Mental Health Charter Status in 2024 to demonstrate our commitment to student and staff mental health.”

Matt added: “We’ve also been doing loads for student wellbeing – too much to mention really! Some highlights include the comprehensive health needs assessments to identify priorities and areas for wellbeing service improvements. 

“We’ve seen significant financial investment into mental health and wellbeing across the University too, from the new student support model, to developing a suicide prevention strategy, as well as working towards the Mental Health Charter. An extra £1.3m per year is going towards wellbeing spending, which shows how committed we are to supporting positive mental health and wellbeing.”

Claire relaxes by taking regular walks with her dog Tommy
Claire relaxes by taking regular walks with her dog Tommy

How can people be more aware of their own mental health?

Claire said: “Since starting in my current role, I’ve learnt that mental health is just as important as physical health.

“We should prioritise it and invest in our own wellbeing; we should feel open to talking about our mental health with friends, family, and with managers as part of our regular 1-2-1s.

“There are so many coping mechanisms that can help, such as writing about our experiences, and I’d advise exploring these options and finding something that works for you personally.”

Matt said: “The NHS 5 Ways to Wellbeing is useful as it encourages us to connect with others, be physically active, learn new skills, give to others, and pay attention to the present moment. It’s worth checking in with these once in a while. 

“For me, mental health means being able to live the life I want to live. By that I don’t mean winning the lottery and going on epic holidays, but things like going to places I love, doing the things I enjoy, and hanging out with the people I care about.

“Think about what’s important to you and what you value in life. Are you living the life that you want to live? If you are, great! Or if there’s room for improvement, what needs to change?

“As Claire says, it might help to write all this down. Once you know what you want, you can work out the journey to get you there and identify any support that might help you achieve that.”

What plans are in place to help improve staff and student mental wellbeing over the coming months?

Matt said: “Again, there’s loads going on! For University Mental Health Day on 14 March, there’ll be activities across Durham including a Mental Health Roadshow in the TLC from 12-2pm. Also, with the weather improving, check out the Wellbeing Walk events, as well as the Walk Guides on SharePoint.

“In the Easter term, there’ll be relaxation and resilience sessions, and a 'promoting good sleep' stand in the library. Also, don’t forget to look out for some free places at the Durham City Run Festival in July.

Claire added: “We have lots of initiatives for staff and we plan to improve the promotion of these opportunities. This includes the health and wellbeing workshops that are part of the open course training programme for all staff, and the monthly Wellbeing Walks and Wellbeing Cafés."

Even if someone feels they don’t have any problems right now, are there things we can all do to improve our mental health?

Matt said: “I’d say think about what’s important to you, whether that’s being in nature, connecting with friends and loved ones, or simply reading a book. Whatever it is, try and schedule time to do what you value.

“Also look out for any warning signs, so you can take positive action to overcome these situations. If you need support to do this, never be afraid to ask as there are people who can help.

“We’d also encourage all staff and students to complete the suicide awareness training on Oracle. It only takes 30 minutes and provides some really useful knowledge and examples of how to keep people safe.”

If someone has concerns about their own – or someone else’s – mental wellbeing, is there one piece of advice you could give them?

Claire said: “If you’re a student, get in touch with student support in your college. If you’re a member of staff, get in touch with one of our Staff Mental Health First Aider who are a point of contact for any colleague experiencing mental health difficulties or emotional distress. They’re not counsellors or psychotherapists and their help doesn’t replace professional support, but they can act as an initial point of contact to help recognise mental health difficulties and signpost towards professional support.

“There are also many other support services available at Durham, including the Chaplains who offer support and a Listening Service; the Employee Assistance Programme with its 24/7 expert advice and compassionate guidance; the Health and Wellbeing Hub with its useful information, events and links; and our range of workshops, including 'Mental Health Awareness for staff', 'Supporting the Health and Wellbeing of your Team for managers', and eLearning including 'SkillBoosters: Mental health – stress less', as well as the suicide awareness training that everyone should complete.”

Matt said: “I’d agree with all of that. I’d also say, seek the support you need right away. Don’t wait for things to improve by themselves. There are so many brilliant support services at the University and across County Durham which are there for you and can help you live your best life.”

What do you personally do to improve your own wellbeing?

Claire: “Well, I walk my dog Tommy three times a day!”

“He’s an 18-month old cocker spaniel with energy to burn, so he doesn’t give me the option of staying indoors and it’s great to get into the fresh air.”

Matt said: “Yes, I get out and about too. I’m a runner and being on the trails and fells helps me to be in the present and blows the cobwebs away. Just being outdoors gives me a really positive boost.

“We’re so lucky in Durham to have such a perfect little city, coast and countryside to explore. If you can, get out and make the most of our wonderful part of the world!” 

More information

You can get more details about health and wellbeing support, plus a range of other information to help you in your day to day work on the Working at Durham intranet pages.



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