Address student stress, NHS told

February 6, 2004

The National Health Service must do more to help students with mental health problems, a leading psychiatrist said this week.

Mike Hobbs, chair of the Student Mental Health Working Group at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, who was due to speak at a Universities UK conference this week on student mental health, said: "Some clinical psychiatrists regard students as a relatively advantaged bunch. In fact, in terms of their access to mental health services, they are disadvantaged."

The college is seeking meetings with the National Institute of Mental Health and the Department of Health to set out national strategies for dealing with student mental health.

The college wants students to receive greater priority in mental health services and wants to set up mechanisms for ensuring that effective treatment for students is available in the holidays as well as in term time.

A report last year from the college on mental health in students said that up to one in four students suffered from some kind of emotional problem during their time in higher education. Eight per cent sought support from counselling services.

Dr Hobbs said: "The Disability Discrimination Act has imposed a duty of care on universities with regard to students with mental health problems.

There is a job to be done in ensuring that the efforts made by universities are matched by the NHS."

Opening the UUK conference, Geoffrey Copland, rector of Westminster University and vice-chairman of UUK, was expected to say that Widening participation means that universities now teach students from a wide range of backgrounds with a wide range of needs. It was therefore essential that they were given the money to deal with their needs, he said.

Ann Heyno, head of counselling and advice at Westminster, spoke on how to respond effectively to suicide and self-harm.

"Suicide leaves such a sense of hopelessness in those left behind (that it) leads to a terrible sense of guilt. While we do need to look at what more we can do, the wish to apportion blame is problematic for places such as universities, prisons and other public institutions."

Dame Fiona Caldicott, principal of Somerville College, Oxford, said:

"Universities still need to take on board that the mental wellbeing of their students should be part of their core business. Students won't achieve their maximum potential unless that is acknowledged."

While suicide is the biggest cause of death among men aged under 35, the prevalence among students is no more than among others in this age group.

But Dame Fiona said that the first signs of serious mental illnesses often appeared at the age students started university, making it important to distinguish between students with short-term counselling needs and those with more long-term illnesses.

"We can do a lot now for people with mental health problems and if you can get such a person through their degree, you give them the confidence of a degree and of knowing that they dealt successfully with a period of mental illness," she said.

UUK has set up a committee to promote mental wellbeing in higher education through collaboration across different sectors and professional groups and to influence policy.

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