Universities are facing new challenges to provide adequate pastoral care as rates of mental health conditions among university students soar. Research from YouGov states that one in four university students in the UK are experiencing mental health problems, spurring universities to adapt their support services to ensure that individual students’ needs are met.
In the 2018 Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey, students were asked to score their institution on how well they felt their personal requirements were catered for and whether there was good welfare support available. The five that came out on top for best student welfare were Harper Adams University, Loughborough University (the overall winner of the rankings), the University of Chichester, the University of St Andrews and the University of Leeds.
The University of Sheffield was also highly rated for its mental health and student well-being provision, coming joint 10th in the table. One of the reasons the institution scored so highly could be because it has brought some welfare services in-house, resulting in shorter waiting times for students to access treatment and support, says Susan Bridgeford, director of student support services at the institution.
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Bridgeford explains that some services, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, which are traditionally offered on the NHS, are now provided by the university to ensure faster referral rates for students who require them. The institution also plans to bring in other therapies to cater for a wide range of students’ needs.
“We are seeing more students present with personality disorders, so we would like to introduce dialectical behavioural therapy to respond to the needs of that group of students,” she says.
Sheffield also has a GP practice on campus (as do many other high-scoring universities, including Falmouth, Surrey and Exeter) which offers students bespoke physical and mental health services as well as a central health and well-being team for personal or cultural issues.
At the start of this semester, the university introduced the one-stop shop SAMHS (Student Access to Mental Health Support) in an attempt to streamline services following feedback from students that said multiple reporting channels were confusing.
Georgina Speechley, a psychology student from the University of Sheffield, says that the institution supported her an “unexpected amount” with her anxiety disorder. She has an education mentor who helps to ensure her condition doesn’t affect her studies and has received special software on her laptop that helps her to focus and organise herself.
“The university health services have been brilliant at listening to me and signposting or referring me to other services that might be able to help. I am treated as an individual and the support I receive is tailored around me and not just to typical anxiety-related symptoms,” she says.
As well as adapting the services in response to changes in the needs of the student body, a proactive approach is required to minimise the risks of a student reaching a state of crisis and to target groups that may be considered more vulnerable.
The University of Chichester is doing this by approaching incoming first-year students who may need additional support. Dave Corcoran, director of student support and transition at the university, and his team look at a series of factors that could indicate if a student could benefit from their services, including if the student has come through clearing, if they are an older student, whether the student is a care leaver, whether they come from a low participation postcode or if they studied a BTEC.
“We tend to have about 50 per cent of students who engage and 50 per cent of students who decline, but often they come back to us and ask for study help or financial help later on,” says Corcoran.
Jamie Faulkner, a music student at Chichester, says that he and his parents approached the university prior to attending to inform them of his anxiety and depression, and to put measures in place to manage his mental health for when he arrived at university. “The mental health adviser would contact me to make appointments and check that things were OK, because they knew that I was unlikely to make appointments myself – I wasn’t very good at reaching out,” he says. “When things started to get worse, the university was very open to looking at different ways to help me as much as they could, such as a reduced timetable.”
Faulkner also says that the university worked with the local NHS services to make sure he received all the support he needed so that when things got bad, they would arrange for the local crisis team to come out or they would contact the local mental health service centre.
In the instances where students would prefer to access support themselves, universities must ensure information about their care services is visible and that they are easy to access. Michelle Milner, director of learning and well-being at the Royal Veterinary College, which came in at joint eighth place in the student welfare composite, says that making students aware of support services is one of the challenges the college faces, as do many other universities. Even working at a smaller institution such as the RVC, it is not necessarily easier for Milner’s team to communicate to the entire student body.
“I’m not sure size is the factor – it is more the mode of communication,” she says. To this end, the RVC has turned to technology for help. “Sometimes it isn’t appropriate to communicate services over social media or in text message, and students don’t always like receiving a lot of emails, so we have an RVC app where a lot of the information can be accessed,” explains Milner. This is backed up by advertisements on the institution’s intranet and clear signage around the students’ union.
Still, Milner says it can be difficult to adapt communication methods to suit the institution’s two campuses. On the London campus, in Camden, students are more likely to encounter the well-being services as they are housed in the main building. However, for students based at the college’s Hawkshead campus in Hertfordshire, the advice centre is housed in a separate building and so different methods of communication have to be considered.
Ceri Chick, a bioveterinary science student from the RVC, has studied at both campuses. “The college is a huge advocate for promoting good mental health, and there are many services available here for students who are struggling,” she says. “All services are easy to access, and there are many signs around the campuses and online showing the support service contact details.”
Chick says she feels grateful that she never had to wait long for help. “If one area of student support couldn’t help me, I was immediately directed towards the appropriate department,” she says.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the rising need for mental health support on UK campuses. Where universities are seeing success is in efforts to cater to personal requirements and being proactive in their welfare support. However, to continue to be supportive, and even stop the growth in the prevalence of poor mental health among students, universities will need to listen to their cohorts and adapt their responses to changing needs.