Unique virtual reality application to support mental wellbeing for Health Sciences students

VR headset graphic

The University of Liverpool has been awarded £198,000 by the Office for Students (OfS) to develop an innovative approach to supporting mental wellbeing of Health Sciences students on clinical placements.

The ambitious Collaborative immersive remote clinical undergraduate support (CIRCUS) project will develop and evaluate a unique virtual reality application aimed at students undertaking clinical placements in hospitals across the North West.

A team from the School of Health Sciences and Student Services department will project manage CIRCUS as part of the OfS mental health funding programme Using innovation and intersectional approaches to target mental health support for students. CIRCUS is supported by Mersey Care, the Innovation Agency, and Liverpool-based software development company Draw and Code.

The app will enable users to ‘meet’ student support tutors in a relaxing virtual environment as well as undertake meditation and mindfulness sessions.

The School of Health Sciences provides education and training to over 1000 learners studying for health professional careers in diagnostic radiography, nursing, occupational therapy, orthoptics, physiotherapy, and therapeutic radiography. Students consolidate their academic studies by undertaking blocks of practical experience through placements in clinical departments.

Denise Prescott, Dean of the School of Health Sciences said: “The School of Health Sciences has consistently performed well in the National Student Survey and attained high ranking positions in various higher education league tables. Central to this success is the effective delivery of the clinical element of our pre-registration programmes, which requires input from multiple stakeholders across the University and from our clinical partner sites. During the global pandemic our students have undertaken their clinical placements in the NHS and these unprecedented circumstances have served to reinforce the value of wellbeing support for our students.”

Support for students throughout their studies is a priority for the School and the wider University, and the recent challenges presented by COVID-19 restrictions have highlighted the importance of providing mental wellbeing support to students undertaking remote clinical placements.

Dr Paula Harrison-Woods, Director of Student Administration and Support said: “This project builds on our existing work to support student wellbeing through a range of platforms.  We know that students on placement face particular challenges and require flexible and creative responses. This project provides a fantastic opportunity to enhance our support offer and trial new approaches to support.”

Project lead Dr Pete Bridge from the School of Health Sciences said: “Virtual Reality is changing the way we engage with each other in a range of fields including entertainment, engineering, design, military, retail and education applications. In our project, we are going to use it to transport nursing and allied health students from their placement accommodation to a relaxing environment such as a beach, forest or alpine meadow. We are hoping that meeting with support staff virtually in this environment will reduce feelings of anxiety, enable effective support and reduce the amount of time they spend in front of a laptop screen. We are also hoping to use this environment to deliver guided meditation and enable students to meet each other for peer support. It is a very exciting project that we think will complement our existing mental wellbeing support mechanisms in an innovative format.”

The Office for Students is the independent regulator for higher education in England. Their aim is to ensure that every student, whatever their background, has a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers.