Universities are primarily educational institutions. But the culture, expectations and pressures around student life have changed in the past few years.
Students still want to learn and get a qualification to help their careers. However, they also want to develop independence, connect with others and experience new things.
Universities recognise this and offer more than just the opportunity to study. They also provide student mental health support.
There is legislation that dictates the minimum educational institutions must do, but most other guidance, while encouraged, is optional.
If you work in higher education or advocate for mental health support at your university, read our guide to learn more about the government’s advice, relevant laws and resources available. You’ll better understand how to protect your students’ mental health and give them the best possible university experience.
Why Mental Health Support is Needed
University is an exciting time for most students. It’s often their first time away from home, which is usually a cause for celebration. But being away from home can also cut students off from their established support networks. Friendships, family ties and romantic relationships can all be strained when someone enters higher education. This stress can be caused by course demands, moving long distances or both.
Academic pressure can do more than take up a student’s time. Competition is increasing, and students need to push themselves further to get the qualifications they think they need.
This is on top of the social anxieties a lot of students feel. The university experience is often sold as the best time of a young person’s life, which can build unrealistic expectations that only lead to disappointment or feelings of isolation.
With this combination of factors, it’s not surprising to see that mental health issues among students are becoming more common.
Student Mental Health at University
The government has introduced a range of policies designed to help young people access mental health support.
Schools and colleges have been given grants to train senior mental health leads. There’s also been an expansion of access to Mental Health Support Teams, which help young people manage a range of common mental health issues. The national curriculum has also been updated to teach children about the importance of mental well-being.
While these initiatives should all be celebrated, they’re almost exclusively focused on schools and colleges, not universities.
Nearly all university students are over 18, so they’re adults responsible for their well-being. But, many still lack the experience or maturity to handle periods of stress, depression or anxiety. Particularly when living on their own for the first time.
What the Numbers Say
A parliamentary report on student mental health shows that the number of conditions reported by students has been increasing over the last ten years, with figures for 2020/21 seven times higher than a decade earlier.
Other research suggests that the number of students struggling with their mental health may be even higher. Student Minds, a leading mental health charity, found that 57% of students reported a mental health issue when surveyed anonymously.
The same survey also revealed that a quarter of students would not know where to access mental health support from their university if they needed it.
What Must Universities Do to Support Student Mental Health?
Although policies have primarily focused on helping younger students, you should be aware of the existing mental health guidance that universities must follow.
Equality Act 2010
The Equality Act 2010 applies to professional and educational settings and has implications for student mental health support.
The legislation protects individuals from discrimination based on nine protected characteristics, one of which is disability. The legal definition of a disability includes any health condition (including mental health conditions) that has a “substantial and long-term” impact on someone’s ability to complete everyday tasks.
So, you must be prepared to make reasonable adjustments for students entitled to protection under the Equality Act.
Duty of Care
In 2021, Michelle Donelan, then Minister of State (Department for Education – Higher and Further Education), confirmed that universities have a duty of care to students. This assertion was made concerning support for students suffering from long COVID but explicitly stated universities must “take steps to protect the health, safety and well-being of students.” Most people would assume this includes their mental health.
But it should be noted that this hasn’t been accepted as official guidance. In one 2022 court case, a judge ruled on the side of a university being sued for perceived failings in mental health provision. In his ruling, the judge stated that there was no “statute or precedent” that states universities owed their students a duty of care.
This was just one case and one judge’s interpretation, however. It’s safer (and more compassionate) to operate under the assumption that you need to look after your students and make reasonable adjustments for their mental well-being.
University Mental Health Charter Programme
One way to improve mental health provision at your university is to sign the University Mental Health Charter Programme (UMHCP).
The programme is backed by the government and led by Student Minds. It offers university guidance and promotes the ‘whole-university’ approach to student mental health support.
The Charter is optional, but the government hopes that all universities will have committed to the programme by September 2024.
The University Mental Health Framework
The University Mental Health Framework is central to the UMHCP’s efforts to improve student mental health at university.
Free to download, the Framework is built around evidence-based principles that advise universities to apply a holistic method to mental health support – the aforementioned ‘whole-university’ approach.
It considers all factors that affect student mental health – genetics, background, environment – so universities can offer better support to students and improve outcomes.
The Framework also suggests categorising mental health provision into four domains to facilitate the whole-university approach:
- Learn – support for new students, handling academic pressures and progressing through higher education and beyond
- Support – support services, information sharing and collaboration with third parties
- Work – support for staff well-being and development
- Live – accommodation, social integration and a mentally healthy environment
Suicide Safer Universities
You can also access guidance offered by the Suicide Safer Universities scheme, which advises universities on suicide prevention.
Like the UMHCP, participation is optional but strongly recommended by the government and Universities UK, which runs the programme.
Suicide rates among students are lower than those of similar age groups in the general population. Suicide prevention should still be a priority for universities, however.
There were 64 student suicides in the academic year ending in 2020, according to data from the Office of National Statistics. This is the lowest rate for four years. Improved mental health support may have contributed to the decline in student suicide. Still, any preventable loss of life is a tragedy.
Student Space is another independent but government-backed resource for students struggling with mental health.
It’s also led by the charity Student Minds and acts as a mental well-being hub. It guides students towards mental health resources and support, including:
- Information and advice
- Where to find support at university
- Dedicated mental health support services for students
Training University Staff
As mentioned, the ‘whole-university’ approach to student mental health depends on staff development and well-being.
Without training, you and your staff won’t be able to offer effective support or early intervention. You must also understand how to look after your mental health, so investing in Mental Health Awareness Training is valuable in developing your whole-university approach.
You’ll better understand the common mental health problems your students might experience and the early indicators that someone’s struggling. The course also outlines steps to promote a positive work culture, giving you and your teams a solid foundation to build on and improve mental health support across your university.