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Universities and mental health

Happy students on campus


Today is University Mental Health day and the initiative, started by University Mental Health Advisers Network in 2012 and supported by Student Minds and members of the Alliance for Student-Led Wellbeing, sees more than 60 universities participating in the theme of #headstogether to transform the state of student mental health. Activities range from workshops to help students support fellow students experiencing mental health difficulties to well-being fairs, mindfulness and relaxation instruction, and campaigns to signpost on and off campus services. Above all, today provides a great opportunity to focus on what is being done and what needs to be done to address the important issue of student mental health and well-being.

It is of course an issue that receives significant media attention which focuses on a crisis of student mental health. For example, a recent survey by NUS for the Student APPG, indicated that 78% of respondents felt that they had experienced mental health problems – diagnosed or undiagnosed – in the previous 12 months. Previous research had identified a prevalence of around 1 in 4 (as in the wider population). So this may represent a dramatic rise – certainly how it has been depicted in media reports – but more probably reflects how difficult it is to define the burden of these illnesses. Mental health and wellbeing – including clinical definition of illness – exist on a spectrum. But those with personal or close experience of mental illness – I include myself in that category – would distinguish between stress or low mood and the crushing disability of clinical anxiety or depression. The NUS survey also indicated that 33% of respondents had had suicidal thoughts. The ONS reports that in 2012 there were 112 (full time) student suicides in the UK. Every suicide is tragic. We know that they are under-reported, coroners preferring to return ‘accidental’ verdicts to protect families and friends. But the ONS figure represents a rate of 6.6 per 100,000, lower than background rates of 11.8 per 100,000 (all ages) or 7.8 per 100,000 (15-24 year olds).

So why this suggestion that there is a crisis in student mental health?

There are, I think, two reasons:

  1. There are specific vulnerabilities in student populations and growing recognition of these. We know that demand for student support services is rising 10% per year. As more and more school leavers decide to enter HE, that expanding cohort does have particular vulnerabilities and requirements that universities must continue to try to address through support and interventions. Increased numbers of students of course mean increased numbers with pre existing mental health conditions. For the wider cohort, transition – from home, from childhood, to new fields of knowledge, opportunity & identity – can mean dislocation, illness and, importantly, difficulty accessing appropriate services.

This is starting to be well described by a growing number of student voices, some individual such as John Servante’s ​Diary of a depressed student, some organised, including excellent activist charities such as Student Minds. But there are still challenges around stigma, access to services and the response by staff and institution to students who are struggling with these conditions.

Sir Anthony Seldon, VC at Buckingham University, has suggested practical steps that universities may want to take to step up their levels of support and intervention. UUK’s guidance drafted by the Mental Health & Wellbeing group strongly recommends that these improvements are set within an institutional mental health & wellbeing strategy that brings together key players, service users and service providers, within the university and the NHS and voluntary sector.

  1. The suggested crisis in student mental health is actually part of a wider crisis in the mental health of the nation. Norman Lamb MP leads a high profile campaign to demand parity of esteem (and funding) for these conditions. With the attrition of NHS and third sector services for mental health, university service provision has been pushed into a more prominent role.

UUK’s Student mental wellbeing: partnerships in practice conference on 9 March emphasises the critical importance of these service partnerships but also the wider partnerships – peer to peer, students with staff and students with institution – that must underpin effective action on student mental health and well being. We are pleased that Sir Anthony will join the event which will also set out a more positive vision of the Healthy University as supportive, learning communities that help students through transitions and better realise their ambitions and individuals and citizens.

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