Supporting Student Mental Wellbeing

Supporting the mental wellbeing of students is a growing concern in higher education and among healthcare providers.

As Vice-Chancellor of one of the largest universities in the UK, with an increasingly diverse student population, and through my various leadership positions in the health sector – which has included chairing the Independent Reviews of Mental Health Related Homicides across the South West for the Strategic Health Authority – I am very familiar with the need for close integration between the health, social care, probation, education and university sectors.

We know that in the general population at least one in four people will experience a mental health problem in any one year and one in six adults have a mental health problem at any one time.

But beyond that, we also know that there are very particular circumstances that students face in a university environment, that for some, means they are more at risk. And this problem has been increasing in recent years. Reports in the sector suggest an increase in referrals and applications to well-being services of between 25 and 37% since last year. At UWE Bristol, this certainly matches the increase that we have been experiencing.

Why has it been increasing over recent years? Well this includes factors such as changes to the profile of the student population, with a more diverse make-up than it has ever had before. It also includes a reduction in financial support that can place an increasing pressure on students to seek part-time work, at the same time as an increased pressure to succeed. More generally, we have also seen higher rates of family breakdown and an economic recession that has hit hard on many young people.

The student population is also in some ways more vulnerable than other young people.

When they join university, they quickly have to adapt to new environments and new ways of learning.

There are also vulnerabilities beyond the individual. Disturbed behaviour by one young person (for example self-harm) can cause considerable distress and disruption to fellow students, particularly in halls of residence.

Universities clearly have legal, moral and practical reasons to provide support for students with mental health difficulties and we have a long history of providing student support, counselling and disability support.

Students are at a point in their life when their university experience is likely to hold the key to their future success. If they already have existing mental health difficulties, higher education could provide a new source of self-esteem and opportunities for engagement with peers and the wider society. Alternatively, underachievement or failure at this transitional stage in life can have long-term effects on self-esteem, and could affect the progress of someone’s future life.

Universities are about opportunities and it is important that all students are supported to succeed. However, this is at a time when the pressure on the public purse and public services is intense. How much can a university do to make up for this shortfall in the interests of its students? Clearly we need to be smart about this and take an integrated and effective approach.

We know there are important practical impediments to this, including restrictions on the transfer of confidential information between agencies. However, a number of models of collaborative working have been established across the country and we should look to and learn from these.

The UUK guidance ‘Student mental wellbeing in higher education: good practice guide’, launched last week and picked up by the Times Higher Education today, provides a great new resource. I was very pleased to give the key note address at this event, on what is a critical agenda – not just to individuals, but also to families and wider society.