The government, the Office for Students (OfS) and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) have announced a £3m investment in a new platform called Student Space to “boost student mental health” during the pandemic.
For six months, from July to December 2020, this new platform purports to fill “potential gaps in provision” and ensure that “all students have access to support they need”.
When the government, the English regulator and the Welsh funding council see the mental health of students as an area deserving of more funding – albeit through the lens of a pandemic – we have good reason to be positive, in principle.
But from announcements so far, Student Space appears to be looking in a lot of different directions for gaps to fill. We are told the platform will host wellbeing resources, facilitate student peer support, curate student volunteering opportunities, deliver therapeutic interventions, and more. Is it the right intervention at the right time?
Understanding the challenges
There are real challenges in the student wellbeing space right now. University counselling and mental health services need to have the right skills and operating models in place to respond to the growing demand for mental health support and the higher levels of risk being presented by students.
In some cases, this will require additional resources. In others, services would benefit from re-modelling. We must also do more to help all colleagues in universities – whether you’re a personal tutor, a funding adviser, a sports coach or a security officer – know how to respond effectively to a distressed student, while protecting your own wellbeing and the boundaries of your role in the process. These challenges were real in February but they are even greater given the circumstances we are now in.
There is a specific need now for a project which gives a practical steer on how universities can meet student expectations for mental health support, where it is appropriate that they do, and help manage those expectations where students expect too much.
The production of clear sector-wide guidance on the configuration of counselling and mental health services could help universities get off the hamster wheel that too many of them find themselves on (“More students are requesting mental health support…we don’t have enough counsellors…we have no funding for more counsellors…let’s spread the current team thinner and thinner…argh!”).
Not another one
Instead of addressing challenges like the ones above, it appears that Student Space is at risk of setting up shop in an already overcrowded marketplace.
Wellbeing resources exist. The NHS website has a list of 22 established mental health apps. There are already some excellent books aimed at students, from people like Dr. Dominique Thompson, about specific mental health issues. There are podcasts, peer support platforms, and all of the resources that are put out by charities focussing on specific mental health issues. Insofar as Student Space will be hosting resources, I am struggling to see the gap that this platform intends to fill.
Many universities are already paying for a licence to provide their students with online self-help resources – with platforms such as Big White Wall or SilverCloud. A one-off £3m injection of new funding could have given every university enough to cover their 20/21 licence for one of these existing platforms – spending the money on platforms already tried, tested and adopted across the sector.
Universities that already have a licence for an existing platform could have been directed to use their freed-up spend on additional fixed-term mental health practitioner support – their share of the funding would have comfortably covered the cost of an additional part-time mental health nurse or social worker for the next 6 months. And those universities that have, so far, been unable to afford a licence would have been able to get one, in time for the testing year ahead.
If I were in my former role as director of student services just now, I’d be looking at the announcement of Student Space and wondering how it was going to interact with, or perhaps compete with, what my team is already delivering. This would feel, to me, like an issue my team would need to manage or work around, rather than something that was going to make my team’s work easier and markedly improve the lives of students.
But a deeper concern about Student Space relates to its promise to deliver “therapeutic interventions”. At this stage we only have a couple of initial news releases to go on, but a service that delivers therapeutic interventions inevitably picks up, and has to manage, clinical risk – and we should be concerned about how little time there is for Student Space to get these issues right given the platform is due to launch next month.
Consider a student who is already receiving counselling or another type of therapeutic support from their university or the NHS. That student going on to access a second parallel intervention – from anywhere, including Student Space – may be countertherapeutic. You could have two parallel clinical interventions potentially pulling the student in different directions, or at least lacking in coordination.
And what happens if a student discloses a very high level of risk to someone on the Student Space platform? There would need to be clear protocols for sharing this information with the student’s university and/or local NHS services; otherwise, we essentially have a dead-end form of support here. Can we forge the local links and data-sharing protocols required for this in just a few weeks?
We need to be clear (and I trust that colleagues at Student Minds would agree with me on this) that this new platform will not reduce the demand for specialist mental health practitioners and counsellors on campus – it might even increase it.
So talk of the “therapeutic” role of Student Space also raises a risk that leaders in providers – especially those struggling financially – will look at this new platform, and then turn down an increase in funding for, or even propose a reduction in funding for, core campus services.
Finally, there’s a legacy issue. What happens to this new platform after 6 months? There is always a risk with projects like this that they might pivot to become paid-for platforms which universities must subscribe to continue using. I hope that this platform is not a new cost-in-waiting for universities, because that really is the opposite of what support services need.
Clearly government and OfS/HEFCW are keen to be seen to be doing something quickly in this space, and I understand why Student Minds have taken on the project. I have worked in several charities – and when government or a national agency comes bearing funding for you to lead on a new project, you say yes, of course you do. But it’s crucial that new projects around student mental health work with the grain of, and enhance, what already exists, rather than setting up something new on the side.
The interventions I hope for are those that will guide, fund and incentivise our university specialist support services – which are already established and too often struggling right now – to be as good as they can be.