There’s an encouraging trend to normalise our approach to mental health so that we view it as we do physical health – that mental health is something that can be maintained by the individual, with help if needed, and that others can make allowances for.
Despite this, one in four students face mental health issues at university. Whilst the majority of these issues arise because of workloads, 46% of respondents to a Save the Student survey attributed them to their living standards.
Are providers responsible for mental health issues?
Any landlord or accommodation provider has to provide physically safe accommodation to occupiers and visitors. If they don’t, it could lead to mental distress, which the provider would be liable for, as well as any physical harm caused.
If private student accommodation is let to an occupier and is physically safe, it’s difficult to see how the provider can be held legally responsible for monitoring students’ mental health. In a traditional landlord and tenant relationship, the provider is expected to allow the tenant “quiet enjoyment.” This means they should leave them to get on with it.
On the other hand, universities have greater pastoral obligations to their students than private landlords. They have more responsibility for providing services, such as counselling, and making allowances for the impact mental health could have from time-to-time on students’ responsibilities as occupiers.
What can accommodation providers do to help?
Buildings, including student housing blocks, have to be designed and operated to preserve the occupier’s physical health. Increasingly, student accommodation providers are considering how they can promote student mental health as well.
If it becomes apparent that a student has a mental health issue, the provider should bear that in mind before taking any steps in respect of, for example, a breach of the licence agreement or a failure to pay fees. It can’t be seen to discriminate against the occupier because of their mental health.
Leaving the hard edge of the law to one side, we’re increasingly seeing student housing schemes that are owned and operated in ways that promote mental health, just as much as they promote physical wellbeing.
Student housing is one of the main examples of the benefit of treating “space as a service.” Providers are deriving financial and other benefits from making sure student occupiers feel happy and secure during their time in the accommodation. It’s common sense for them to do what they reasonably can to make sure students stay on their courses, and are happy and healthy when they’re using the accommodation service.
Overcoming social isolation
A major contributing factor to mental health is social isolation, and this could be a particular problem for foreign students.
In previous times, it was assumed that all student issues could be resolved by going to the pub, but today’s students are just as likely to appreciate and benefit from onsite sports facilities, gyms, or cafés.
Accommodation providers can help with addressing isolation by encouraging clubs and interest groups, like a cinema group, and ensuring they have access to communal facilities.
Designers and architects of student schemes will already be considering how much of an impact access to light and shielding from noise will have on physical and mental health. They’ll also be increasingly making sure that corridors and circulation areas encourage students to mix, and that facilities, such as quiet study areas, don’t feel isolated.
For a number of reasons, it’s clearly important to design and operate a building with mental health in mind.
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