Are UK Universities Doing Enough To Help Student’s Mental Health?

With Mental Health Awareness Week in full swing, many universities have expressed their commitment to tackling the issue among students. But are they truly doing enough?

The pressures of university life can exacerbate student’s existing mental health issues, as well as contribute. The anxieties of making friends, performing well academically and keeping finances in check cause many students to suffer from mental health issues during their degree.

The Guardian annual student experience survey from 2017 found that nearly nine in 10 (87%) of first-year students “find it difficult to cope with social or academic aspects of university life” and almost six in 10 said the stress of studying made it difficult to cope with mental health issues.

As attitudes toward mental health have changed over recent years, the scale of the problem for students is becoming more and more clear. Data from the New Institute for Public Policy Research found that last year, nearly five times as many students as 10 years ago disclosed a mental health condition to their university.

While every university in the UK does provide support for students suffering from mental health issues, whether that’s in the form of counselling, student-led services or more general advice, what’s not clear is whether they are investing as much time, money and resources as they should be. Data acquired from a freedom of information request in 2016 shows the differences in spending per head on mental health services at 42 different UK Universities:

The figures show that spending fluctuates broadly from one university to the next. Oxford and Cambridge allocated over £40 per year for each student while Plymouth and Strathclyde spent less than £9. Manchester (£23.70), Liverpool (£23.12), and Newcastle (£19.31) find themselves midway down the list. While this gives some indicator of the importance these universities place on student’s mental wellbeing, it does not reveal how the money is spent or the degree to which it helps the issue.

When reached for comment the current NUS Vice President for Welfare, Izzy Lenga, spoke of every student’s right to professional care.

“We believe that students need and deserve high quality and timely support if and when they are struggling with their mental health. We know that many students, whether they have a diagnosis or not, experience poor wellbeing because they are forced to, for example, juggle paid work with study to meet the rising cost of living.”

Izzy Lenga, NUS Vice President for Welfare

Ms Lenga also mentioned that many students cite the same reasons for their struggles. A survey conducted by the NUS in 2013 looking into the main causes of mental health issues among students reported that 65% cited coursework, 54% exams and study and nearly 47% cited financial difficulties.

“Students report difficulties with long waiting times for university support services, and especially for NHS support.”

“With disproportional representation of minority groups experiencing poor mental health we need universities to offer timely and culturally competent services for their student communities. They must work to reduce the social and economic stressors that contribute to poor mental health and prioritise wellbeing.”

Bristol University is an example where action is being taken to improve services. They have recently invested £1m on a new wellbeing service for students “after seven suicides in 18 months”. In a post on their website, they announced plans to embed student wellbeing advisors in every academic school of the University whose “role will be to identify and assist students at an early stage who might be struggling so they can be offered support before any issues start to escalate.”

Speaking on the issue to The Financial Times, Bristol University’s vice-chancellor Hugh Brady claimed that “There was more certainty in our time whereas students are graduating into a world where change is the norm”. He went on to say that “Mental health is at the top of the agenda of vice-chancellors across the country”.

Prioritising investment in student wellbeing could help address the disparity in the spend per head in the above data, where the top universities are spending over five times more than those at the bottom.

Achieving an equal quality of service across the board, however, is undoubtedly a very difficult task given that each university has varying amounts of funds available. For now, at least, the level of mental health support accessible to students depends partly on the university they attend.

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