What are UK universities’ mental health services like? Are they doing enough?

mental health
Often it can be hard for students to know what help is available to them. Source: Xavier Sotomayor/Unsplash.

It is easy to talk about mental health as if it is not really happening. But up and down the UK – and all over the world – students are suffering.

We spoke to those who have experienced – or are currently navigating – the world of university while struggling with their mental health, to find out what is out there to help.

Lizzie Stevens, who completed an undergraduate degree and began a master’s at the University of Bristol, suffered with depression, generalised anxiety disorder and PTSD during her time at university.

She used the University Counselling Service (UCS) twice, each time receiving six one-on-one counselling appointments. Additionally, Lizzie had access to the Student Health Centre (SHC), where she regularly saw a GP.

The people around you play an important role

“I felt very lucky to have access to a bespoke student service,” Lizzie told Study International.

But Lizzie didn’t just find help through the UCS and SHC. “I also sought help through my personal tutor, who was brilliant,” she said.

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“When I was particularly unwell during final year, she [her personal tutor] made contact with all my subject tutors to inform them about my circumstances (with my permission), so that absences were more coordinated, rather than having to contact different tutors every day.”

Lizzie claimed her lecturers were “outstanding”.

“They were empathetic, and supported me to succeed,” she told Study International. Additionally, Lizzie said: “The counsellors I saw through the UCS were genuinely brilliant, but unfortunately the service was under a huge level of demand which meant it could not provide long-term care.”

Universities are under pressure

“I think universities are put in an incredibly tough position,” Lizzie said. “As a student, I was incredibly lucky to be able to get counselling through my institution, and as such was able to get counselling within a matter of weeks.”

Sadly, quick help for mental illness is seldom seen in the UK. “If I was not at university I would have instead have been on NHS waiting lists (as I am now) for upwards of six months,” Lizzie explained.

“I worry that universities are constantly being pressured to provide services, that ultimately the government ought to be funding for young people and are currently failing to offer. “

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One of the most important aspects is knowing what is available

Charlie Conibear, a Southampton Solent University student, was diagnosed with depression before university. When he started at university, he found an improvement in his mental health.

“I think that a lot of universities are very good at helping students with mental health,” he told Study International.

“We get reminders via our university emails that they offer services to students who need it: for those diagnosed with a mental health disorder or those who just need to talk and are feeling low. Counsellors sometimes come into our seminars just to talk about what kind of support they can offer.”

Sophie Spillman, a recent graduate from the University of Bristol claimed her university “dealt with it pretty well”.

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“Student health immediately referred me to the NHS, who then got me into counselling within two weeks,” she said.

“I then went back to student health and again they were really great – it took longer this time to get counselling but they offered me support whilst I waited.

“I did feel pretty ‘passed around’ during this time,” she claimed, “but it was only because they were trying to find the best help.

“Which they totally did,” she added. “The counselling was amazing.”

Despite Sophie’s positive experience of university mental health services, she claimed: “I don’t think universities do enough outreach to students who are struggling.”

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“Pretty much everyone I know has suffered mental health problems, yet barely any sought help. Obviously uni can be very isolating and stressful, so I think universities need to do more to identify students who are struggling rather than waiting until people seek help.

“When someone is mentally ill they’re usually convinced they’re fine or too scared to get help, so having someone offer it can be a welcome relief.”

Matt Booth, a Loughborough University student who sought help at university for depression during his second year, claimed help can be hard to find.

“A lot of the help is out there,” Matt told Study International. “You just need to find it yourself. It’s not made obvious to anyone.”

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Many students struggle with seeking help

Jessica Taylor, a King’s College London graduate, was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at university.

“If you know where and who to go to for the best response to a call for help, they [universities] are good; but if you’re like me and you had no idea where or who to turn to, you don’t always get the response and the help that you need,” she said.

Jessica claimed there were not enough people who were “visibly and publicly available” to help students with issues they were having.

“You are made aware that mental health issues are ‘common’ and there are opportunities for extensions on work etc, if you do find yourself having problems,” said Matt. “But most of the issue is down to the person.

“There’s almost a sense of self pride that makes you think ‘I don’t need an extension, with or without this issue I can get through it.’”

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Things are moving forward

Adam Grayston, a University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) graduate, claimed mental health was not spoken about as freely when he was studying back in 2011.

“It’s quite an open topic now, which makes it easier on you when you’re struggling and need advice,” he said.

Grayston claimed there is a lot of help available now for students at UCLAN.

“As with anything, it’s a step-by-step process when making progress with your mental health, taking small steps in the right direction is better than leaping forward only to stumble backwards.”

* Some names have been changed.

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