Creating a blueprint for supporting student mental health

Ben Lewis explains what the other nations could learn from the Welsh Government approach to student mental health support

Ben Lewis is Director of Student Life at Cardiff University, Chair of AMOSSHE Wales, and Europe Director of the International Association of Student Affairs and Services

The isolation and disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have accelerated and exacerbated a trend which many of us have observed in recent years: students are presenting to their university with mental health concerns in greater numbers, complexity and, increasingly, in states of advanced crisis and risk.

The Welsh Government recognised and responded to this issue by providing universities with additional funding specifically for mental health and wellbeing strategy development and implementation in 2020 and 2021. This was used by student support services to develop innovative ways of providing support, and to offer this support to more students.

The questions now are how do we ensure we can continue to adapt to meet the changing clinical and welfare needs of students across Wales? And do we build on the partnerships with the NHS and third sector formed throughout the pandemic?

This has been the focus of a sector-wide working group made up of Universities Wales, NUS Wales, ColegauCymru and AMOSSHE The Student Services Organisation, in consultation with the Wales Mental Health Alliance.

The Welsh Government’s ‘no wrong door’ approach – advocated in their Programme for Government – requires joined-up action across health and education. Our collaborative work has responded directly to this call.

The five underlying principles, in a paper published this week, that the working group are asking the Welsh Government to consider are:

1. Parity of experience: Students should be able to access a consistent standard of support, regardless of where they live and study. Whilst there may be some divergence in services available across Wales, there should be a minimum expectation of support for all students.

2. Effective information sharing: In order to avoid students ‘falling through the gaps’ relevant bodies need to be enabled to share information as appropriate where it is in the students’ interest.

3. Clear remits and responsibilities: students, institutions and public services need to understand and agree on the remit of support provision appropriate to different bodies.

4. Transition Support – Change is a constant in a students’ education journey. They move from school to college to university. They may move away from home, they may move from support provided by CAMHS to adult services under the NHS. For students with long-term conditions, additional support through these transitions is vital to avoid new risk.

5. Sustainable, long-term funding – Ad-hoc, project-based funding – whilst helpful in the short term in encouraging innovation – can be less impactful in this policy space. Effective support for mental health and well-being requires a stable, long-term service offer. Therefore, staff retention and consistency of service is vital.

The sector has already responded positively to some of these recommendations. As a result of earlier Welsh Government funding, delivered through a HEFCW, a new NHS Mental Health University Liaison Service is now supporting students across South East Wales. This partnership has been developed by Cardiff­ University, Cardi­ff Metropolitan University, the University of South Wales, the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and the NHS via Cardiff­ and Vale University Health Board.

The specialist clinical team, based on university campuses within student support services, responds to students who require an NHS assessment for moderate mental health problems or more complex long-standing mental health issues. The service can be accessed via a referral from a university’s student services department, NHS Adult Liaison Psychiatry, or any GP in the region making the process as seamless as possible for students in need.

This is a great start, but we must continue to work together to remove barriers to vital support; to provide staff in pressured and critical roles with the security they need; and to ensure timely access to high quality services for our students.

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