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Personal safety

developed by Birmingham City University Team

Understanding the links between personal safety, mental health and well-being

The topic of ‘safety’ is a broad and  multi- dimensional concept with numerous factors which contributes to its prevalence. Such factors include physical; sexual, psychological, economic, and emotional safety.  Much of the observed existing literature, which explores personal safety on university campuses can be broken down into two key sections. The first key section is UK based research exploring violence of a gendered and sexual nature (See Anitha & Lewis 2018; Phipps & Smith 2012). Personal safety on campus has also received attention from student activist groups such as the National Union of Students (NUS) who campaigned against the rise of sexual violence within campuses across the United Kingdom (Bovill et al; 2020). The second contribution towards understanding personal safety on university campuses largely sits with American research, exploring mass shootings which have taken place across American College campuses (See Sloan 2002; Muschert, 2007 & Borum et al; 2010). Additionally, the prevalence and scale of hate crime perpetrators who infiltrate campus spaces has also received academic attention (Downey & Stage 1999). From this brief examination of the existing literature in relation to personal safety on campus, there are two key points which have become clear. Firstly, there is a significant gap in the literature which integrates the role that personal safety has on enabling or hindering positive student mental health and wellbeing. Secondly, existing research on student personal safety has rarely expanded beyond the campus perimeter. For example, the impact of feeling and being safe within local communities and residential areas has been largely overlooked. Considering these gaps in the literature, it is therefore necessary to explore psychological; sociological and criminological frameworks whereby the necessity to explore personal safety as having an important role in student wellbeing becomes clear.

Utilising theory as a platform for future research

Maslow’s 1970 theory of motivation is a useful theoretical framework in which to begin understanding the basic human requirements to achieve self-actualisation and subsequent positive mental health. One of which includes safety and security (Mathes, 1981). Although the empirical validity of Maslow’s theory of motivation has been challenged and tested through rigorous academic research (See Lester, 2002), it’s argued that Maslow’s framework has helped inspire further exploration studies on the links between personal safety and mental health. The research of Guite et al; (2006) indicates that there lies within the human psyche a link between the construction of the physical; built environment and how mental health is shaped.  Guite et al (2006) argued the key factors influencing mental health that occur within the built environment are noise, space, overcrowding, facility access and a fear of crime. Building on these factors which were discovered through participant focus groups, Guite et al (2006) emphasised the necessity to implement interventions and safeguarding policies which enables occupants of residential areas to navigate the urban space safely and thus enabling a healthier experience of mental health and wellbeing.

Considering these studies, it is argued there lies a link between personal safety; mental health and well- being. However, personal safety is a multi-dimensional concept. The following section will decipher the five key strands of safety and suggest policies that HEI’s can undertake to ensure the safety of their students. In doing so, their mental health and well being can be enabled to flourish.

Figure 1. Example of structuring workshop 1”Safety in the city”

The first key element of personal safety is safety in the city and ensuring students are aware of their surroundings and the methods of navigating urban spaces. It is recommended that HEI’s organise and deliver workshop sessions as part of the enrolment process which advice students of key factors to consider when navigating a city. An example of how these workshops can be broken down is as follows:

Figure 2. Example of structuring workshop 2 “Key tips to help avoid the risk of being burgled”


The second key element of personal safety is ensuring that students are of an understanding of how to protect their homes and accommodation from burglary and fire. A workshop on offering resources and advice can be structured as follows:


Figure 3. Example of structuring workshop 3 “Safer drinking practises”

The third element of personal safety is safeguarding against bullying, discrimination, harassment, and violence.  As part of the student enrolment programme, a workshop can be organised which should consist of two key parts. Firstly, ensuring students understand what bullying, discrimination, harassment, and violence is. Also, that they understand the variety of modalities in which  they can occur and the short; long term consequences of such actions.  For example, breaking down the physical, psychological, economic, emotional, and social causes and consequences.  Secondly, to ensure all students understand the reporting process undertaken within their HEI and how to access such facilities. It is recommended that students are trained in identifying behaviours which consists of bullying, harassment, discrimination, and violence. To take a unified approach whereby both students and staff work together to eradicate such behaviours on their campus.

The fourth personal safety element is emphasising safer drinking practices and ensuring students are aware of the legal; social and health risks contained within consuming alcohol and illicit substances. A workshop during enrolment can take the following structure:


Figure 4. Example of structuring workshop 4 “Coping with/ helping others with panic attacks, anxiety, and stress”

The fifth and final key element of personal safety is coping with panic attacks, anxiety, and stress. Firstly, its important to ensure that students understand the complexities of mental health. Generally, mental health is a fluid process which can affect anybody, anytime and for any reason. One factor which can impact student mental health is a feeling of personal safety. Ensuring they feel equipped and empowered to navigate the campus space and wider community is argued to be paramount. Additionally, there is lots of advice to help students cope with their mental health. Information could be structured as displayed below:




Thinking forward, there are five key recommendations for HEIs to consider implementing. All of which are in the interests of ensuring students are as safe as possible on campus from a series of harms including physical; psychological and emotional. If students are safeguarded from these harms, it is strongly argued that their mental health and well being can be better preserved and enable to thrive.

  1. Firstly, its recommended that HEIs undertake Anti bullying, discrimination, harassment, and violence safeguarding training for both staff and students. It is hoped this would establish a sense of collectivism, community and responsibility within the student body.
  2. Secondly, its recommended that as part of the enrolment process for new and returning students, they receive a series of five workshops which emphasise key tips and resources to stay safe. As illustrated earlier, it is advised they consist of the following:
    1. Safety in the city,
    2. Safety in homes/accommodation,
    3. Safeguarding against bullying, harassment, discrimination, and violence,
    4. Safer drinking practises/ consumption,
    5. Coping/helping others with panic attacks, stress, and anxiety.
  3. Thirdly, its recommended that HEIs offer a virtual/physical tour of their campuses, accommodations, and surrounding areas. It is hoped that If students are advised as to key zones which could be safer or not as safe, they can make informed decisions as to how they commute; navigate the campus and community, and more-so knowing where to access help facilities and local services.
  4. Fourthly, its recommended that HEIs either establish or develop a tool kit to report crime; anti-social behaviour and incidents which occur on campus and within the community.
  5. Fifth, its recommended that HEIs collaborate with local services/authorities such as the police and trusted taxi companies. HEIs should also seek to provide emergency financial support for students who cannot afford taxis/ safe options to commute. Such collaboration should be communicated to students and should involve their participation and feedback throughout.




Closing thought: the role played by the pandemic in shaping personal safety

It is necessary to briefly explain the impact covid-19 has had on influencing personal safety within HEIs. On a global scale, many students are currently studying at home. This means that there are not as many students on campuses as once before. However, as the UK and parts of Europe look to end all lockdown precautions during the summer of 2021, its important to remember that as students are welcomed back to campus, there could be a new wave of risks to their safety, mental health and well-being. Such risks can be street crime, fear of contracting the virus and general anxieties related to being back out in public again. Therefore, in the interests of risk reduction and early intervention, the information and recommendations provided above is relevant and important to consider when students return to campus in September and onwards.




Anitha., S. and Lewis, R. (2018). Gender based violence in University: Communities: Policy, prevention, and educational interventions in Britain. Bristol: Policy Press.

Borum R., Cornell D,G., Modzeleski W., and Jimerson S.R (2010). What can be done about School shootings? A review of the evidence. Educational Researcher, 39(1), pp. 27-37 DOI-: 10.3102/0013189X09357620.

Bovill H., McMahan S., Demers J., Banyard V., Carrasco V., and Keep L (2020). How does Student activism drive Cultural Campus change in the UK and US regarding Sexual violence on Campus? Critical Social Policy: SAGE. DOI- 10.1177/0261018320913967.{ Accessed: 13th July 2021}.

Downey J.P. and Stage F.K (1999). Hate Crime and violence on College and University Campuses. Journal of College Student Development. 40, (1), p.3.. URL- https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Frances_Stage/publication/234646931_Hate_Crimes_and_Violence_on_College_and_University_Campuses/links/558c3bfb08ae591c19d9f61e.pdf. {Accessed: 13th July 2021}.

Guite., H.F. Clark, C. and Ackrill, G. (2006). The impact of the physical and urban environment on mental well being. Journal of Public Health. 120 (12) P.p. 1117-1126. Available at URL: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0033350606003015 {Accessed: 13th July 2021}.

Lester, D. (1990). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and personality. Personality and individual differences 11 (11). Available at URL: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/019188699090032M {Accessed: 13th July 2021}.

Mathes, E.W. (1981). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a guide for living. Journal of Humanistic psychology 21 (4). Available at DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177%2F002216788102100406

Muschert, G.W. (2007). Research in School Shootings. Sociology compass- Wiley Online Library. 1 (1) P.p. 60-80. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9020.2007.00008.x

Phipps., A. and Smith, G. (2012). Violence against women students in the UK: time to take action: Journal of Gender and Education 24 (4) P.p. 357-373. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/09540253.2011.628928 { Accessed: 13th July 2021}.

Sloan J.J (2002), the correlates of campus crime: An analysis of reported crimes on College and University Campuses. Journal of Criminal Justice. 22, (1) pp 51-61. Available at URL:https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0047235294900485 Accessed: 13th July 2021}.