Young people’s mental health is in the spotlight with good reason, and the last few years has seen a particular focus on mental health at university. The late teens and early 20s are a transformative period of any young person’s life, let alone when they live away from home and study to improve their career prospects whilst finding out who they are and developing their independence. But if we know student mental health is fragile, why have some UK universities outsourced mental health services?
We were shocked to read about several UK universities outsourcing student mental health support, rather than providing it in-house. Instead, they are providing students with support from a vaguely-titled ‘wellbeing officer’, pushing the focus away from mental health to the cosier and less stigmatised wellbeing label: a subtle but intentional shift of direction that is a red flag for psychologists.
As Metro.co.uk pointed out, ‘the softer focus on “wellbeing” could put students with more serious mental health problems at risk’, particularly as wellbeing staff act to signpost external services, not to intervene directly. At the University of Essex, ‘wellbeing assessors’ do not require qualifications in counselling, psychology or psychotherapy. Such assessors may be good-intentioned, but how informed and safe will their assessments be? This all comes just months after Universities UK collaborated with NHS leaders to improve care coordination for students dealing with mental health issues, so to have less proactive intervention from universities feels especially misguided.
Mental Health Issues at University
Students can be faced with various difficulties when living with and around their peers – for example, eating disorders and dependency on alcohol or drugs may evolve over time, and can be easily camouflaged or enabled by the stereotypical student lifestyle of ‘lazy’ cooking, irregular hours, endless parties and lie-ins. Peer pressure and academic pressure will simply add fuel to the fire for vulnerable young adults.
Toxic relationships with friends or partners can come to the fore, and old friendships may be lost along the way. Many students may question their gender identity or sexual orientation and can face anxiety and depression as a result, especially if their family and friends do not accept their new identity. Besides this, living away from home can also involve hard lessons about money management, motivation and self-care. It is hardly surprising that mental health issues may be prevalent for these young people, but getting help must be more straightforward and less stigmatised if we are to avoid students spiralling into mental health crisis.
Figures on student suicide are another concern. In late June, the Office for National Statistics revealed the number of university students who died by suicide – the first time this kind of data has been revealed. From July 2016 – July 2017, there were 95 student suicides recorded. Meanwhile, the media has highlighted a higher than average rate of student suicide at the University of Bristol which, at its height, tragically saw three student deaths in one month. Hundreds of fellow students took to the streets in May to demand more mental health support, and the Guardian published a widely shared article with insight from students and staff.
Considering 75% of mental health issues are evident by the age of 24, and a typical three or four-year degree (coupled with a possible gap year) may mean graduating at the age of 21-23, universities must do more to safeguard students at this crucial time in their lives. You cannot educate someone, charge them substantial fees and seemingly prepare them for their future whilst ignoring their very real feelings of hopelessness, confusion and low self-esteem.
The most vulnerable young people may wrongly believe they have no future at all; that’s why we call on all universities to invest in robust mental health support programmes with properly trained and qualified staff.
Please note: If you are supporting a young person with a mental health issue and you believe they may have suicidal thoughts, please see our blog post on preventing suicide in a mental health crisis. We recommend you accompany them to their GP for an urgent psychiatric referral, consider a private consultation, visit A&E, call NHS 111 or, in the threat of violent behaviour towards themselves or others, call 999.
Written by guest contributor Polly Allen for Dr Chrissie Tizzard, Chartered Consultant Psychologist, PsychD, BSc, MSc, C.Psychol, C.Sci, AFBPS. Dr Tizzard is the Clinical Director of Christine Tizzard Psychology (ctpsy.co.uk).