Should UK universities do more for students’ mental health?

Should UK universities do more for students’ mental health?

“Well-intentioned but understaffed” is how one university lecturer described the mental health support services available at their workplace to Study International. “[They are] adequate, but only just.”

In the 2016-2017 academic year, Universities UK’s Minding our Future report found that nearly 50,000 undergraduate students and just over 8,000 postgraduate students reported a mental health condition to their college or university.

Both figures have doubled in just a handful of years, compared to just over 25,000 undergraduate students in the 2013-2014 academic year.

But the problem doesn’t start when young adults reach university – 10 percent of children and adolescents suffer from mental health issues.

Other shocking statistics on the mental state of the UK’s young people indicate the problem is only getting worse:

  • One in four people will experience mental health issues at some point
  • 75 percent of mental illness symptoms appear before the age of 18, with 50 percent manifesting before the age of 15
  • 75 percent of children and young adults experiencing mental health issues aren’t receiving any treatment

In addition to the challenges of university life, today’s students are also struggling with ‘eco-anxiety’ and the consequences of climate change. This relatively new mental strain is so debilitating, it has even spurred people to seek therapy.

What can be done to improve the deteriorating mental health of our children and young adults? Should UK schools and universities do more to support their students’ mental wellbeing?

75 percent of mental illness symptoms appear before the age of 18, with 50 percent manifesting before the age of 15. Source: Shutterstock

A wider societal problem in a rapidly changing landscape

“I see a huge amount of resource spent on the treatment end and less on the preventative end. So we are dealing with the problem rather than the cause,” Bobbi Hartshorne, Head of Student Wellbeing at Global Student Accommodation, told Study International.

Considering that university presents so many unique obstacles, including homesickness and financial stress, universities are at least partly responsible for supporting students’ mental health and ensuring at-risk learners can access the care they need.

Hartshorne offers another perspective to what she calls a “wider societal problem”:

“I think we also need to acknowledge that this is not only universities’ problem to solve. Some [students] are very uncomfortable with accessing university-provided support. They don’t like blurring the lines of what university is to them.”

Indeed, students who participated in a survey conducted by Study International cited long wait times, hidden costs and lack of services as the major issues with on-campus mental health services.

The NHS also struggles to combat the same problems, with some patients waiting as long as 13 years for mental health support. “Well-intentioned but understaffed” might well be the most fitting phrase to describe virtually all mental health support services in the UK, not just those on university campuses.

While 45 percent of UK universities employ a GP on-site, according to Universities UK, not all GPs are equipped to handle mental health issues. This is where the NHS comes in – 33 percent of universities provide on-site access to an NHS mental health specialist.

However, because students are considered a ‘mobile population’, updates on their condition don’t always go with them as they travel from their home GP to their university GP and vice versa. International students are at a particular disadvantage due to language and cultural barriers.

“I think the work universities do is incredible,” said Hartshorne, “but the landscape is changing so fast they are struggling to evolve and adapt fast enough.”

New models of student mental healthcare

The Universities UK report outlines seven “place-based, collaborative” models to improve on-campus mental healthcare.

One of the core models focuses on preventative care and the need for “student mental health teams”. These would allow NHS providers and student services staff to collaborate more efficiently and streamline the process of referring students to specialist services.

Another involves “co-production”, which would allow students to assist in producing on-campus mental health services to ensure their needs are met.

Finally, increasing collaboration between local partners – including the universities themselves, the NHS and mental health trusts – will help to “address service issues as they arise”.

“It will not be easy,” acknowledges Steve West, Chair of the Universities UK Mental Health in Higher Education Advisory Group. “But this is too pressing and too important to postpone.”

Resources to improve students’ mental wellbeing

Mercifully, online tools and resources are available to help solve the student mental healthcare crisis.

Some universities, like the University of Reading, offer online mental health support services which provide peer support in a moderated, anonymous environment.

The NHS webchat feature is also available in Scotland seven days a week during regular business hours, allowing students to access instant support from a certified specialist.

Other resources include apps* developed by Expert Self Care, founded by Dr Knut Schroeder, a senior lecturer at the University of Bristol and a GP with more than 25 years’ experience working in the NHS.

Expert Self Care’s Student Health App provides detailed (and NHS-certified) information on a wide range of physical and mental health conditions, as well as helpful links to healthcare services across the UK.

The distrACT app offers support for students who self-harm. The app’s ‘Emergency’ section includes guidance on first aid and what to expect from an A&E visit following self-injury.

The ‘Chill Zone’ section suggests books, films, music and uplifting quotes to distract from self-harm urges, as well as links to real student stories about self-harm recovery.

A local option also connects students with mental health services in their area. Currently, only the Bristol region is supported, but the team is still developing the app and encourages users to submit suggestions.

Recap: creating an action plan for improving student wellbeing

As the old saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child who’s healthy both physically and mentally.

Here are a few steps UK universities could take to improve on-campus mental health services, and ultimately, their students’ wellbeing:

  • Focus more on prevention
  • Increase collaboration between local government, schools, the NHS and other mental health trusts
  • Allow students to ‘co-produce’ on-campus mental health services
  • Provide more online support services rather than just one-on-one counselling
  • Employ an NHS mental health specialist on-site to provide emergency support
  • Publicise online mental health support services, like the distrACT app
  • Simplify the process of sharing medical records to ensure the ‘mobile’ student population receives adequate support, both at home and at university

Rather than simply educating students on what they should be doing to improve their own mental health, perhaps it’s time for universities to recognise the role they play in their students’ mental wellbeing and help them take steps toward better self-care.

In fact, UK universities may soon have no choice, especially if the UK government decides to start ‘grading’ universities on their mental health support services.

*These are not paid promotions. As someone who’s lived with borderline personality disorder and struggled with self-harm for most of my life, I only promote resources that I truly believe have the potential to support students, because I know all too well what it’s like to be in that dark place.

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