Developing healthy minds and healthy bodies by degrees
Mindfulness classes for staff and students are part of daily life at Ireland's first recognised health-promoting university, writes Graham Clifford
It's lunchtime at University College Cork (UCC) and in a room in the Brookfield Health Sciences Complex, students and staff have come together to escape the bustling campus.
"So, take a deep breath, all the way in... and then let go, breathing all the way out," says softly-spoken Maura O'Neill.
The faraway din of students is just about audible, but when I look around, I see a dozen faces with closed eyes and calm expressions. At the top of the room, O'Neill is guiding those gathered through a half-hour mindfulness class.
"Through our work, we're promoting self-care because its part of our professional responsibility to our students," explains O'Neill, a Student Wellbeing Coordinator at UCC. She adds: "Students will be going out into their communities as leaders and taking on responsibilities. Decision-making is impacted by stress and so the better they can manage that stress, the better they will be able to perform in their jobs. And this is true of our current staff as well."
Regular mindfulness classes take place from Monday to Thursday, in both the morning and afternoon.
UCC became Ireland's first HSE-recognised health promoting university in 2015.
Dr Michael Byrne, Director of Student Health and Wellbeing at UCC, explains that the success of the institution's programmes and initiatives is far-reaching.
He says: "While there are no firm facts and figures to gauge the impact of health and wellbeing policy on student performance in Irish universities, we can see that at UCC our retention rates are amongst the best in the country and we believe links can be drawn to our focus on wellbeing. Even basic things like lecture attendance will be up if health and wellbeing is looked after and our counsellors, coordinators and health promoters work hard in these areas."
For years, American universities have championed the entire wellbeing aspect of the student experience. A similar approach has been taken across British universities. Here in Ireland, part of the vision of the Department of Health's Healthy Ireland framework (2013-2025) is to work in partnership with higher education institutions in the development of health-promoting campuses.
Operating a collaborative approach, the UCC management team and governing body feature the whole area of health, wellbeing and development in the UCC strategic plan.
For first year Arts student Libby Walsh from Waterford, the availability of mindfulness classes has helped her slowly integrate into college life.
"In my first week at UCC I got an email from student services to say these classes were free and available. I feared I'd be overwhelmed with everything, but the classes have really been of massive benefit. They've helped me to settle," she tells me.
First introduced to meditation as a Leaving Certificate student at the Mercy Secondary School, Co Waterford, she believes that programmes to assist college students with their mental health will help them succeed.
"If you can reduce stress and try to focus on yourself a bit for a few minutes every day, then I think that helps with things like time management, concentration, studying and even exams themselves."
Tackling everything from physical activities to sexual health and mental wellbeing to healthy eating, the university's Health Matters initiatives seek to provide options for the 20,000 students and 3,000 staff members who regularly pass through the gates of the Leeside college.
But Samantha Dick, who works in Student Health Promotion at UCC, says that pushing initiatives on students will simply backfire. The approach must be smarter, more nuanced.
She explains: "You have to speak to students in a language they understand. Rather than try to force this rule, or that initiative, upon them, you have to make the healthy option the easy choice." Her colleague Emily Lynch outlines the objective of those working in health and wellbeing promotion at UCC: "The ultimate goal is that the environment in UCC is health promoting - almost passively. For example, some departments are holding walking meetings and we hope to see more of that from both students and staff - activities that are healthy but functional too."
A 'Be Well @ UCC' one stop shop calendar of events is being rolled out for the first time this year. Aileen Corkery of the UCC Health Matters team says: "Everything we do is about making it as easy as possible for the student to get involved in the healthy initiative, whether that's a sport, a sexual health class, a wellbeing talk or even a laughter yoga class."
And she says that students involved in healthy activities can still let their hair down.
"Students will want to relax and be involved in the sociable aspect of college life, to have the craic and that's their choice. We just try to make them aware why it's so important to stay safe when doing so."
Sylvia Curran is the Staff Wellbeing and Development Advisor at UCC. She told me of how their efforts are being received on the ground and explained there are still challenges to overcome.
"A colleague told me recently that she felt very 'minded', which was nice to hear. We're now working on our next five-year staff wellbeing plan and one of our key objectives is to attract more male staff members to the programmes. That's an area in which we're looking to improve and we know we'll get there."
Constantly seeking to enhance life for students at UCC, Dr Byrne says there are practical things which can be done to lighten the load.
"We're even looking at things such as the timetable of classes for students on a daily basis to ensure they have adequate time for lunch and a break outside," he says. "This is also true in terms of exams schedules. As a university, we want to create the perfect environment for our students to learn and to flourish. After all, that's what college life is all about."