16 May 2018

Universities need a helping hand with mental health

By Emma Revell

In 2015 there were 134 student suicides at UK universities, the highest figures on record, and three suspected suicides have been recorded among students at Bristol University in just the last three weeks.

With almost half of all young people attending university and 75 per cent of mental health issues becoming established before age 24, universities are a key source of support for young people struggling with mental ill-health. But the universities need support themselves.

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and it’s worth noting the good progress government has made in recent years. The NHS’ ‘Five Year Forward View for Mental Health’ plan set out on how to achieve “parity of esteem” between mental and physical healthcare for all ages and ministers have pledged to spend an additional £1.4 billion on young people’s mental health.

Despite this, in 2015 figures showed over 15,000 students had disclosed mental health conditions to their universities – five times the number than did so in 2006 – and 94 per cent of higher education providers reported an increased demanded for counselling services but less than a third of universities have an explicit mental health and wellbeing strategy.

Helen Whately, Conservative MP for Faversham and Mid Kent, has written an essay for the Centre for Policy Studies publication “New Blue: Ideas for a New Generation” which outlines her thoughts on how government can better support universities and through them, students struggling with mental health conditions.

In her piece, Helen highlights the toxic mix of circumstances that can make students at university especially vulnerable to mental health crises. Often a long way from home and existing support networks, independently managing financial responsibilities for the first time, academic pressures, struggles adapting to university life, increased risks associated with drug and alcohol use, all of which can lead to isolation, anxiety, and stress at an age when many serious mental health conditions are most likely to manifest themselves.

Helen puts forward 10 proposals to bring together various organisations that are involved with university students and being to create a comprehensive system for care that supports students at this critical time.

Some proposals focus on better awareness of student mental health among universities for example rolling out mental health first-aid training to academic and non-academic staff, and others look at practical steps that could make a big different such as allowing students to register at two GP practices – home and university – to ensure better continuity of care and avoid students slipping through the cracks.

As someone who experienced mental ill health at university, I know how much impact the suggestions Helen proposes could have. Ensuring mental health support is flagged up in university inductions would destigmatise the issue for students, highlighting the fact that mental ill health isn’t rare or strange and promoting awareness of the help that is available to them.

This would have avoided the situation I had where my tutor, who like most academics was focused on my work and had probably had little or no formal mental health training, suggested I go to my GP which I was reluctant to do, further delaying the point at which I started receiving appropriate support.

Another key point highlighted by Helen’s piece is the need for students to be able to speak to someone at the university unconnected with their academic work. As she points out academic staff “have a role in judging students’ work, and students say they worry that disclosing a problem could affect their grade”.

This certainly rings true for me and the fear my tutor would think I was crying wolf in order to get a deadline extension was another reason for delaying talking to someone about how I was feeling.

If we can reach out and help provide support and care for mental health conditions it could lead to measurable improvements for universities and students. Healthier students will benefit more from their university education leading to better employment prospects and a boost to the economy. Students who have a better awareness of mental health can support their peers better, and, in future support their colleagues, leading to less stigma and improved treatment for those with mental health conditions.

Emma Revell is Communications Officer at the Centre for Policy Studies