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Universities need to find ways to prevent students reaching crisis point

By Lucy Power

The Top 10 questions generated by the Right People, Right Questions project are a to-do list for researchers working on treatments and services for young people’s mental health. They are the most important, unanswered questions identified by children and young people, parents, teachers, mental health and social work professionals, and researchers. In other words, they are the questions that matter most to those most affected by a lack of treatment solutions and poor service delivery.

This blog post is part of a series responding to the questions. It relates to Questions 7 and 10: 

“Which interventions are effective at supporting suicidal young people?”

“What is the most effective way of training teachers and other staff in [universities], schools and colleges to detect early signs of mental health difficulties in children and young people?”

 

The provision of mental health support at universities in the UK has been widely criticised for its failure to help those most in need. Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that 95 students in England and Wales died by suicide in the academic year 2016/2017, a 23% increase since 2006/2007. Rates of mental health difficulties such as anxiety, stress and depression have also risen among students in recent years.  This is alarming to say the least, and shows how crucial it is that universities place student wellbeing at the forefront of their concerns.

Following the publication of the ONS figures and the recent media coverage of student suicides, many universities have publicly stated that they are indeed taking student mental health extremely seriously. Yet, myself, like many other students, question whether this is actually happening. While efforts are being made by universities to change the system, are they effective? Are they enough?

Take the University of Bristol’s recent announcement that they are allowing academic tutors the freedom to contact the guardians of students they feel are at risk. This came after the suicide of a 19-year-old first-year English student. After his death, it became apparent that he had been missing seminars and lectures, yet at the time, none of his tutors questioned his declining performance.

To give credit where it is due, Bristol’s opt-in scheme is innovative and welcome, but the tragedy that precipitated its introduction encapsulates the complete failure of the student support networks that currently exist at universities.

For a start, what is supposed to happen when the guardian is informed? Presumably they are supposed to take the matter into their own hands and sort out some non-university-based support. But waiting lists for counselling services are lengthy and do not cater for students registered with GPs away from their term-time address. Are students supposed to travel back and forth between their homes and university to attend counselling?

The bigger picture question is, why let it get to this stage in the first place? Why can’t universities think of more sustainable ways to tackle the rising rates of student mental ill health?  

Culture of support

As a university student myself, I can absolutely see the need for a more open conversation about mental health at university. Rather than letting individuals descend into crisis and then offloading them onto their guardians and/or the overcrowded NHS, universities should create a culture of support between students and staff which focuses on emotional support and wellbeing.

The beginnings of this are happening at my own university. For example, it is now compulsory for staff to undergo a mental health first aid training course so that they can recognise the signs and symptoms of mental health issues. A student counselling service now offers brief drop-in sessions. Additionally, the Disability Academic Advisory Service offers extended deadlines and academic adjustments for students with mental health issues.

Luckily, I have not struggled with my mental health during my time at university so far, but friends of mine have. Unfortunately, their universities don’t offer the same level of support that I am able to access. With deadlines piling up, the struggle of living a long distance from home and unfamiliar financial pressures, I’ve known students who simply could not manage and had to leave university. This is such a shame, as with the right support networks in place, academic failure, university drop-out and reduced employment prospects wouldn’t be the future for so many.

As a member of McPin’s Young Person’s Advisory Group, I brought the issue of student mental health within higher education to the forefront of my conversation. While the Right People, Right Questions project largely received questions that focused on younger people (up to the age of eighteen), I think it is important that we also draw more research attention to university student mental health.

Of the Top 10 questions, number seven (“Which interventions are effective at supporting suicidal young people?”) and number ten (“What is the most effective way of training teachers and other staff in [universities], schools and colleges to detect early signs of mental health difficulties in children and young people?”) could be useful questions to kickstart this.

 

For more information about Right People, Right Questions, visimcpin.org/RPRQ and click on the reports. If you are a young person and are interested in getting involved in mental health research, sign up to our Young People’s Network.