Why I...

May 13, 2005

It is estimated that one in four students will experience some form of mental distress during their time at university and with more than 2 million students in higher education, it is clear that mental health is no longer a minority issue. We all have mental health - good or bad - and mental health problems do not discriminate:they affect people of all ages, sexes, religions, races and backgrounds.

Stress in students is well documented - at this time of year the anxiety of exams is combined, for many, with financial pressures, living away from home and the high expectations to succeed in both exams and securing a good graduate job.

A recent study reports that the number of students presenting with mental health problems is on the rise, due in part to increased student numbers.

While students are more willing than the general population to seek help for mental health problems, where can they turn if there is no funding for the help they need?

Universities and colleges already take this issue very seriously. A recent survey by Universities UK and the Standing Conference of Principals confirms this - more than a quarter of respondents have a mental health policy in place, and a further 60 per cent are in the process of developing one. The number of student mental health initiatives in the sector is impressive, and the UUK/Scop Committee for the Promotion of Mental Well Being in Higher Education was established to provide a focal point for this work.

However, institutes can do only so much. Collaboration with the National Health Service in providing services for students is crucial. UUK is holding a conference on May 17 to look specifically at this issue and at how to address the problems of providing coherent and consistent care.

Co-ordination of support for students is critical - from supporting the transition both into and out of higher education and providing joined-up support for the student at university and home. University counselling services do a great job, but they are massively overstretched and the higher education sector does not have the funds to provide an alternative to the NHS.

Currently, the NHS focuses on treating people with severe mental health difficulties, which means that universities and colleges face the challenging task of supporting students struggling with mental health issues, problems that the NHS does not consider severe enough for its intervention. Recent changes to the contract system for general practitioners will in effect reward doctors for treating elderly or more susceptible patients, leaving students out in the cold. As a result, health centres in areas with a high student population will face a cut in funding and this will have a knock-on effect in the services they provide to students.

The upcoming conference aims to challenge the assumptions of what can be expected of both NHS and higher education mental health facilities, and seeks to develop links and to open effective lines of communication between the sectors at local and national level.

There is a desperate need for policies to tackle the issue of student mental health support, and it is essential that the NHS seriously considers establishing dedicated student mental health services in areas that have large student populations. For the sake of our students and their potential to succeed, the NHS must start working with the higher education sector to build an effective partnership.

Les Ebdon is vice-chancellor of Luton University. Joined-Up Practice: Towards NHS/HE Collaboration in Promoting Mental Well Being in HE , a conference organised by Universities UK and the Standing Conference of Principals, will be held on May 17 at Woburn House, 20 Tavistock Square, London.

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