Urgent need for universities to support the mental health agenda

Kevin Rogers, CEO of health cash plan provider Paycare, looks at how and why unis should be responding to the growing need for student support

With 2.3 million individuals in the UK currently in higher education, and 95 recorded university student suicides between July 2016 and July 2017, the need for adequate support within the sector is on the rise. The provision of support within universities is a growing challenge, with budget restraints and cuts to funding a risk to even the most basic of services.

The average student now graduates with debts of over £50,000, meaning that the grades they achieve matter more than ever to kick-start their career. Students are facing stresses from all sides, with coursework, social commitments, financial worry, and being away from home, all potentially impacting on mental health and wellbeing.

There is rarely one cause of poor mental health, and even more unusally a single solution. Each instance needs to be looked at separately by all those involved in support, including universities.

Breaking down the causes of a student’s difficulties, and investigating ways the university can alleviate some of them, is a good start. While mental health is normally complicated, and often requires input from medical professionals – especially where it’s progressed from stress to a diagnosable condition – there are ways in which universities can help.

Are there, for example, financial problems? And, if so, can the student be directed towards appropriate funding streams or money advice services? Is living in catered or non-catered accommodation likely to be triggering when it comes to a student recovering from an eating disorder? Where the workload involved in a degree is causing problems, what can be done to allow individual tutors to not only recognise there is an issue, but to act on it in a way which will benefit the student?

Half of all mental health problems are established by the time someone is 14, so many undergraduates will have already been experiencing issues for a number of years. Still, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve been formerly identified, have an effective treatment plan in place, or that the big adjustment of moving away from home and beginning the next stage of their lives won’t prove to be a rocky time.

Encouraging students to access help and normalising the conversation about mental health can do a lot to get universities moving in the right direction, but what is available once someone asks for help?

Encouragement to register with a GP near their new term-time home is a must for all universities. So, too, is a regularly updated and easily accessible list of all services within the area, be they helplines, counselling, drop-in services, crisis centres or something else.

If a student approaches someone – a lecturer, another member of staff, or the student union – and the university cannot offer support which would help, they should at least be able to efficiently signpost them towards someone who can.

The key issue here is breaking down any barriers to students accessing help; not only by having support readily on offer when someone asks, but also getting the message out loud and clear that mental health is important and something to be talked openly about, rather than hidden away.

A National Union of Students survey revealed 78 per cent of respondents had experienced issues within the previous year, with more than half (54 per cent) not seeking support. A total of 40 per cent were nervous about what support they would be offered, and a third said they didn’t know where to get help from within their university or school.

Sadly, this reflects a broader societal problem of stigma surrounding mental health issues. The fact that one in four people are affected in any given year (equating to almost 600,000 students) is exactly why universities should be doing their very best to drag the issue out of the shadows.

Normalising the conversation surrounding the emotional wellbeing of students and staff isn’t something which can happen overnight, but it can be facilitated with the right training for everyone working on campus. Stories of students and staff who have earned their degree, flown high in their respective careers and achieved — despite, or because of — their mental health should be regularly shared in places where they will be seen by as many people as possible.

Kevin Rogers

Repeated – and genuine – encouragement for struggling students to come forward is important, not just once they begin their studies, but beforehand, too. Efforts to increase numbers of those disclosing on their UCAS application that they have a mental health issue should be supported by universities, with as much information as possible available on websites, social media and at open days to educate students about what support they can expect to receive. This also enables universities to be forewarned about the level of support which may be required in the coming academic year.

There has been an increased use of buddy systems within universities, often spearheaded by students themselves in a bid to offer support to peers who might be struggling. While I’m absolutely sure they’ve been launched with good intentions, one thing is clear: relying on students to volunteer for on-call mental health support for fellow students could be a dangerous game.

Of course, students feeling able to open up to someone is a great start, but their ‘buddy’ should not be their sole port in a storm, because it has a whole host of implications, especially if symptoms worsen. The impact on the buddy’s own mental health and studies needs to be investigated more thoroughly, not least given the high incidence of student suicide.

The repercussions of a suicide are always going to be difficult – not only for friends, but the university as a whole – and there would undoubtedly be even deeper emotional turmoil for anyone who had been involved in trying to support the individual as a mentor or buddy.

Encouraging students to access help and normalising the conversation about mental health can do a lot to get universities moving in the right direction, but what is available once someone asks for help? There is currently a huge disparity between universities when it comes to spending on services. This must – and can – change – if all universities commit to learning from best practice and make mental health spending their priority. While institutions may be competing against each other for the top places in the rankings tables each year, they should be working collaboratively (with each other, and with the country’s leading mental health experts and organisations) to better the mental health of the next generation.

For more information, please visit paycare.org