Supporting students' mental health is a 'joint endeavour'

06 June 2022

On Sunday (29 May), Russell Group CEO Dr Tim Bradshaw wrote in the Telegraph about how universities are working to support students with mental health and wellbeing. He described how university services have evolved to work in partnership with NHS providers, who should always be the first port of call for anyone struggling with mental illness, and other universities to offer help to those who need it. 

The original article, which published in the Telegraph on 29 May, can be found here. For more details, read the full op-ed below.

Mental health. Wellbeing. Mindfulness. It wasn’t that long ago that these words weren’t part of everyday language. Now, if you’re not thinking about your mental wellbeing, you’re probably the exception rather than the rule.

This is undoubtedly a good thing. Removing the stigma around mental health so people are no longer afraid to seek help, and so society is more geared to help, is a positive step.

There are still challenges though. Across the UK, we are seeing an increase in the number of adults experiencing mental health difficulties and this is reflected in rising demand for student support services in universities and through the NHS.  

Universities have been responding to this for years. Like schools and colleges, our role has changed. As more young people choose to study at university, often leaving home for the first time, they need more than just lectures and tutorials. Universities help with careers and employability, pastoral care, academic skills training like essay writing as well as providing support for students from under-represented groups.  

While the NHS should always be the first point of call for those struggling with mental illness, universities have also responded to the growing need, helping to build student resilience, identify those who may be struggling and supporting them during treatment. Teams of highly committed and caring individuals are working across campuses helping thousands of students every year.

We’re listening to our students, to each other, and are adapting in response to what we hear. On Monday (25 May) we organised our third roundtable of student support teams from across the Russell Group to share best practice, hear about the challenges teams are facing and reflect on how we can provide the best possible service to our students.

Covid and the challenges of multiple national lockdowns are an example of how mental health provision can’t stand still. Faced with entire cohorts of students, who like the rest of us, were unable to leave their rooms, apart from a short walk, university teams innovated and found new ways to get the support students needed to them.

Online forums and webinars made discussion groups more accessible and easier for people to join, including young men or students from minorities who are traditionally less likely to turn up to a support group. Several universities embraced web chat or text support, so students could always reach out to someone online or through their phone. Many of our universities also found ways to support international students who had to return home during lockdown or home students on their year abroad, by checking in on the phone and signposting them to local accessible support.

Universities have also recognised this is increasingly not a challenge that can be dealt with in isolation and are seeking out new collaborations with other universities, third sector groups and NHS services to try and make sure that when help is needed the individual gets it from the right organisation. Some have set up formal partnerships with local NHS services so universities know if a student has accessed other mental health support and recognise they may need help on campus too. Some have formed regional networks with other universities and local NHS to offer mental health and student support services. Initiatives like this are vital in closing gaps between services so struggling students are not left behind.

Mental health is a complex issue and like any complex issue there is not one solution nor is there a final, ‘correct’ answer.  Universities can provide a huge range of support to students, but really vulnerable individuals need the specialist support that only the NHS can provide. Partnerships can help here – speeding up referrals or sharing information – but student-facing NHS services are needed, something that has been recognised and set out in the NHS Long Term Plan.

Whatever we do it has to be a joint endeavour. Universities are ready to play their part, working with all parts of society – from national and local government to charities and even informal support networks - to invest in more services, make them accessible to all and to help remove the stigma that stubbornly lingers and makes it harder to ask for help.




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