Creating a mental health safety net

Dr Ian Jackson, medical director and clinical safety officer at Refero, explains how technology can eliminate the possibility of students who are susceptible to mental health problems from falling through the cracks

This year’s World Mental Health Day saw major public figures, celebrities and even royalty come together to bring attention to mental illness. Events such as these have made significant progress in advocating against social stigma and offering crucial support in recent years, but there is still much work to be done, especially when it comes to protecting our students.

Research has shown that nine out of 10 students struggle with anxiety, a third feel lonely often, and more than half have thoughts of self-harm. The Institute of Public Policy Research recently reported a 50% increase in students seeking mental health counselling services.

Unfortunately, the noble goal to make further education more widely accessible to all socio-economic groups often exposes some of the most vulnerable people in society to factors that could exacerbate mental health issues, such as financial stress due to rising tuition fees.

The noble goal to make further education more widely accessible to all socio-economic groups often exposes some of the most vulnerable people

Creating easy access to support networks

While holistic care of students requires input from multiple stakeholders, universities are uniquely placed to lead the charge.

As participation has expanded, national trends in mental ill-health have materialised in student populations, causing an increase in demand for support services. Universities have reported a huge surge in demand for counselling services in recent years, with as many as one in four students either being seen or waiting to be seen by counselling services in some institutions.

Yet, simultaneously, many establishments are cutting back on counselling in favour of ‘wellbeing’ services that encompass a much wider range of support. This approach has seen universities garner criticism for pushing back on the NHS. Again, the key here is not to ‘push back’ but to collaborate to offer ‘wrap-around’ care for students.

How HE can facilitate wider engagement

So what role do education providers play in facilitating wider engagement with multi-organisations? Clearly, they have a duty of care to safeguard students – many of whom are away from their familes in an unfamiliar environment for the very first time – but there’s also a very real business case for tackling mental health. Students are a source of revenue for institutions, and there is an obvious need to protect that income.

We know that student wellbeing and satisfaction is tied to retention rates, engagement and academic performance, thereby boosting institutions’ results and reputation to help drive advantage in an increasingly competitive sector.

By reducing the number of students that ‘drop-out’, universities are able to protect and maintain revenues. A US study revealed that of the 100% of students that state a desire to leave, universities are only able to prevent 9% from actually going on to do so. It’s clear that prevention or early intervention is best; all too often we hear ‘If only we’d have known sooner, we could have intervened.’

Education providers must therefore be encouraged to work in close partnership with health and care organisations, local communities, parents and even employers to tackle mental health issues, and to improve student wellbeing, as well as protect their own reputation and revenue. But aren’t universities already collaborating with other service providers?

Many establishments are cutting back on counselling in favour of ‘wellbeing’ services that encompass a much wider range of support

Joining the dots and supporting existing ways of working

Today there are many student services already in existence, both from within the university and externally, but more often than not they operate in silos – with various people and platforms for engagement, lacking any one single overlay service delivering real integration and, crucially, tracking those student journeys.

Enrolment services tend to serve as the entry point into university life and the ideal opportunity to connect students to services such as the student union, as well as valuable student support services from guidance counsellors, disability services or financial aid. However, this engagement tends to be quite fragmented today.

One of the most frequently asked questions by students is regarding the availability of local GP services. While many institutions will provide links to primary care providers via their student enrolment facilities, there is often no further follow-up or audit trail ensuring that those students have indeed enrolled or have ready access to the services they may well require throughout their student life.

Embracing digital – how tech can provide the ‘safety net’

Technology can enable new ways of engaging people and connecting them with support services to eliminate the possibility of students falling through the cracks at the point where services crossover.

Students should be able to sign up to an online platform and send requests to their university ranging from ‘where’s the nearest bus to campus?’ to ‘how can I get an appointment to see my GP?’ Simple questions regarding campus, logistics and course details can be picked up and responded to easily by a receptionist or administrator. But, the real value comes from the potential to connect students with GPs and/or other valuable resources digitally, providing a clear audit trail of those engagements.

But how do education providers facilitate this engagement without incurring additional costs? The key thing is bringing the many services that fall under the umbrella of student support services together into a single consolidated platform, combined with the ability to switch elements on or off according to need.

Education establishments of the future are increasingly embracing digital. But the real value comes from integrating with wider student and public services, including health and social care organisations, especially GPs.

Indeed, students have come to expect this. Only by embracing technology to improve existing ways of working will we see real improvements in how student mental health is managed in the future.


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