Heading off to university seems like an opportunity filled with so much potential, and in many ways it is. Becoming a student of Newcastle University invokes images of a great night out and student life, a beautiful city, and a world class university. Yet, for many people the reality is a little different to the ideas presented in glossy prospectuses and on open days.
Despite the excitement of starting university and the chance to gain independence, sometimes things don’t quite go to plan. According to a 2017 report from the Institute for Public Policy Research, over the previous five years, 94% of universities reported a significant rise in the number of people seeking mental health support. This may be somewhat indicative of a more honest public conversation about mental health, and therefore an increased willingness to discuss mental health issues, or the surge in people seeking support may be due to new issues arising on modern-day campuses. Despite an increasingly open public dialogue on mental health, the stigma against discussing your mental health is still predominant.
In recent years there has been a drive for universities to help tackle the causes of mental health difficulties and provide greater support for students. Newcastle University’s Student Health and Wellbeing service offers support for students including counselling, student support plans for assessment, and wellbeing workshops. Whilst much has been done at Newcastle in an attempt to tackle the stigma, including involvement with the #stepchange and Time to Change campaigns, mental health week, and focus groups on mental health, it is not enough.
Tackling stigma against discussing mental health is extremely important, but so is ensuring that students can access support when it’s needed. The university’s wellbeing service has numerous resources on mental health and hardworking counsellors, but the budget for mental health is limited and therefore so is the number of students that the service can support. Long waiting times for referrals and assessment appointments, inability to access long-term NHS services due to changing residence, and reliance on self-referral, all contribute to limiting the support available. Additionally, pledging to provide more support for students’ mental health is sufficient only if the support manifests itself. The reduction of waiting times, closer links to local NHS services and charities, and greater efforts to help identify and reach those in need of support or advice, will make a vast difference.
Offering counselling and student support plans is helpful, but if availability to these services is restricted then the potential benefits are limited. Extending the opportunity for students to gain support from the university is useless if students can’t then actually access the support needed. An individual’s health is a personal thing, and universities cannot expect students to all fit a similar set of criteria in order to gain much needed support.
Furthermore, the support available is not always obvious. Most students probably know that the wellbeing service exists, but not necessarily the exact services and support that are provided. At the very least, knowledge of the specific services available makes it more likely for students to seek support from the university or others as they know exactly where they can go for advice.
Universities have a duty of care to their students, and mental health is no less important than physical health. Efforts to destigmatise mental health have led more students to seek help or support, but the impact is limited when confronted with overstretched support services and a stressful degree environment. Prioritising mental health is long overdue for UK universities, especially as the number of students disclosing a mental health condition to their higher education institution has increased almost six fold in the last decade.
Confronting stigma against mental health difficulties and discussions on mental health, ensuring students are aware of the support on offer, that it’s accessible, and tackling the root causes of issues, will go a long way to help ameliorate the issue. At the very least, it is in the university’s interest to prioritise solutions in order to prevent the issue having a detrimental impact upon individual grades, or the reputation of the university.
Mental health is complicated, and there is no quick fix to the issues that students and universities face. Clearly universities are not solely to blame for the mental health crisis that they are facing, but they must take greater responsibility for tackling the issue.