Universities Must Prioritise Support for Student Mental Health

Julian Sladdin, Partner at Pinsent Masons, considers how institutions can cope with the increasing demand for student mental health support.

For most students, the transition from school to university will be an extremely positive and rewarding experience, but for others, there may be anxiety as they adapt to the pressures of university life.

The need for universities to be more effective at identifying and supporting students who may have psychological and emotional needs was brought into sharp focus after a number of tragic cases of student suicides at the University of Bristol. These cases highlighted the strain being placed on university counselling services due to the significant increase in students reportedly seeking support for mental health issues.

The challenges facing universities

Approximately one in every four adults suffer from mental health issues. As a demographic, young adults of student age are regarded as at a particular risk given the pressures of relationships, managing money, and the constant intrusion of social media.

Analysis by the Institute of Public Policy Research found more than 15,000 students disclosed a mental health issue to their university in 2015/16, compared to approximately 3,000 in 2006.

Evidence of the rise was supported by data disclosed by UK universities in response to a freedom of information request submitted by the Union of University of East Anglia Students, which found that 94% of UK universities had reported an increase in students demanding counselling services.

Universities also have an increasingly diverse and international student population with different needs, including in respect of mental health care. According to a 2013 report by the Equality Challenge Unit, the number of disabled students at university who have declared a mental health condition increased from 5.9% to 9.6% between 2007 and 2012.

Universities must be alert to the potential needs of their students and the potential for individual cases to fall through any gaps in their internal support networks, and ensure that their own services are joined up with those provided externally, such as through local authorities and the NHS.

The Minister for Universities made a call for universities to act ‘in loco parentis’, which was well intentioned – and universities would be well advised to closely monitor how the Minister’s plans to make it easier for universities to share personal data on students’ mental health with parents or trusted persons develop. This may provide universities with a way to navigate concerns that sharing information might breach of data protection law.

Changes universities can make

Despite the impression given by the media, there is widespread recognition across universities in the UK of their obligations to address student mental health issues, both from a moral and legal standpoint.

In fact, the sector has already made a number of attempts to develop robust policies and procedures for supporting vulnerable students. Guidelines on student mental health policies and procedures for higher education were first issued in 2000 by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP), now Universities UK (UUK), and the Standing Conference of Principals (SCOP), now GuildHE. That guidance was updated in 2015.

One of the concerns raised is that all too often operational issues are dealt with below senior management team level. Senior managers at universities are now under pressure to do more to embed their mental health and wellbeing strategy into the culture of their organisations. This was one of the central messages contained in UUK’s #stepchange campaign, launched in September 2017, where a “whole university approach” to addressing student mental health issues was advocated.

While there will clearly be pressure on universities to invest more in their support and counselling networks, this will not be sufficient on its own. There also needs to be a more joined-up approach to the issue of student mental health, which should be reflected within the character of a university itself. Supporting student mental health must become a strategic aim of an institution and be reflected in the design of policies, procedures and training as well as the integration of consistent good practice across the institution.

Part of that work will involve universities working with the Education Transitions Network, which was launched on this year’s University Mental Health Day, to look at how all parties including the Office for Students, National Union of Students, Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), Student Minds, and schools and colleges can play a greater, joined-up role in helping students through the difficult transition from school to university, and to becoming independent learners. This is supported by guidance for students produced by Student Minds, which helps students navigate the new challenges they face.

Universities should also positively engage with potential students who flag mental health issues at the pre-admission and admission stages to better plan support for needs.

Universities should be open to collaboration with student groups, mental health bodies, the NHS, and local authorities, among others, to inform the design of their mental health procedures and support plans. More engagement with collaborative partners, placement providers and external accommodation owners is also important to ensure better support is available to students.