How can we continue to improve university mental health support?

As the focus on student mental health becomes ever sharper, Chantel Le Carpentier outlines what's working in improving the support universities provide

Chantel Le Carpentier is a Policy Analyst at the Russell Group

While the last two years have been difficult for everybody, young people have faced particular challenges. They have seen crucial years at school disrupted, with uncertainty over exam results leading to questions over progression to university.

While face-to-face learning is now again the primary mode of teaching within Russell Group universities, Covid rules also meant significant changes to the learning environment within higher education supported by substantial investment in new technologies to protect teaching quality.

Under these unique circumstances, students across the UK have shown extraordinary resilience, producing high quality work and – with the support of their institutions – continuing to progress in their courses.

Asking for help

Celebrating the achievements of students does not mean ignoring the fact that for many the pandemic had a significant cost. In August, mental health leads from across the Russell Group got together to talk about how we can continue improving the level of mental health assistance we are able to provide for students and staff.

One thing that came through clearly were reports from colleagues of higher pressure on services with significant increases in the number of students seeking support compared to pre-pandemic.

We should be clear that the fact young people feel able to ask for help if they need it is a positive. Our universities have worked hard to tackle prior stigmas around mental ill health and encourage use of counselling provision and other support services that are available on campuses. We also know this increased demand is in many respects a continuation of longstanding trends.

Obviously, however, it raises questions over how we can best meet student needs and do everything we can to ensure individuals who need help don’t slip through the cracks.

Work smarter and harder

First and foremost, this is about resources and every Russell Group university is increasing investment in student support and mental health services. This means not only upping spending on traditional counselling services, but also on innovative new approaches that help students take steps to protect their mental health proactively.

UCL has developed “PsychUP for Wellbeing”, an initiative that utilises the research expertise at the university to promote good mental health and wellbeing to maximise student potential. PsychUP is co-developed with students and staff and works in partnership with local NHS services to complement specialist provision.

Access all areas

Spending on services is also no good if students cannot access them. Members have continued to work on access over the years, and a number have reported their pandemic response led to lasting improvements in the accessibility of support services. Many of our universities invested heavily in new digital infrastructure to deliver mental health and wellbeing services to students online.

Anecdotal reports suggest institutions have seen more male students and those from African/Caribbean backgrounds engaging with mental health services during the pandemic through online webinars and one to one counselling, where typically these groups have previously been harder to engage.

Online delivery has remained in place alongside established in-person provision to ensure services are accessible for a larger number of students, who can get help in the way that works best for them. This is a continuation of work many universities have done previously to ensure disabled students with access needs can receive help.

Know your limits

What resource strain also brings into sharp focus are difficult questions on what kind of services we are able to deliver. The importance of recognising the limits of university mental health resources is something we also heard repeatedly from roundtable participants.

Universities work extensively with local NHS services. They cannot replace them and spreading resources too thinly in an attempt to do so is problematic. Working alone, universities cannot mitigate challenges like long waiting times for CAMHS which mean an increasing number of young people arrive at university with an unmet medical need or without a formal diagnosis that would help guide support.

Joint working with the NHS is not a solution to the profound resource problems facing mental health services in many parts of the country. Far from it. But building on best practice is necessary to ensure we are doing all we can to provide students with appropriate support at the time they need it.

Joined-up approach

The University of Liverpool used an OfS Challenger fund award to create a system between the local clinical commissioning group (CCG) and the university to bridge support between NHS and university services. This kind of joined-up approach will make it easier to support those students at university who are also receiving care from the NHS.

Inclusion of university mental health practitioners on local NHS committees and boards, such as the new Integrated Care Boards, is another way we can support close working.

We are now also seeing examples of joint working where treatment pathways have been set up which allow students who were receiving specialist NHS treatment but no longer need it to be linked back into university services to ensure continuity of support.

One goal, in focus

Getting the relationship between universities and the NHS right is one of the most important things we can do right now to ensure that the needs of vulnerable young people are met. This is a force multiplier for other crucial work to boost university services.

The increased focus from government on student mental health is right. As a sector we’ve seen too many tragic cases. Everyone working within university mental health teams has the same goal – ensuring every student and member of staff receives the support they need to reach their potential and thrive. Our universities will continue to work to reduce the chances of people falling through the gaps.

One response to “How can we continue to improve university mental health support?

  1. Whilst it is great to see continued investment in student support. The approach is too narrow and the lens remains fixed on MH and counselling services. Universities to need to do more to get downstream of the problems. How are universities policies contributing to stressors in student life, are access points for support seamless, do policies actively support or are they barriers to reaching out?
    Prevention needs to start at the beginning of student journey.

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