'Your coursemates are just computer icons': universities call for mental health cash

Low take-up of central support service shows funds should also go to universities, say vice-chancellors in England and Wales

Universities are calling on the government to provide extra funding for their student mental health services, as new figures show low uptake of a scheme launched by the higher education regulator for England during the pandemic.

Vice-chancellors say services on campuses need more money because demand for already overstretched support has increased up to fourfold during the Covid-19 crisis.

In June, the Office for Students (OfS) announced a new £3m online platform, Student Space, to provide high-quality mental health support to students struggling during the pandemic. The website promised “immediate help for students in distress” in England and Wales, through text support, phone counselling and guided cognitive behavioural therapy.

But official data from the OfS seen by the Guardian shows that from its launch in August to 6 December only 398 students – around 100 a month – used the one-to-one service.

One expert estimates that, in contrast, about 25,000 students a month in England and Wales will have had support from their university mental health teams during the same period. Levi Pay, a higher education consultant who was director of student support and wellbeing at King’s College London and Northumbria University, and now reviews mental health services at other institutions, calls the uptake of Student Space’s one-to-one support as “pretty dismal”. “I don’t think 100 students a month is a meaningful volume for a £3m investment,” he says.

Pay argues that it was always going to be hard for a new service to connect quickly with the huge numbers of struggling students. “If you want to invest in student mental health during the pandemic it seems obvious to me that you should bolster the services students are already turning to, rather than creating a new service from scratch,” he says.

Both the Scottish and Welsh governments have announced new funding in the past two months to bolster universities’ in-house mental health support, as more and more students struggle with the effects of weeks spent isolating in halls, increased financial pressures, and adjusting to a university experience very different from the one they signed up for. However, universities in England are unhappy that they have not been given any similar funding to increase existing provision.

Prof Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England in Bristol, and chair of Universities UK’s mental health advisory group, says: “My simple ask to the minister is to match the funding that institutions in the devolved administrations are receiving. It is unfair and inequitable to disadvantage students in England in this way.”

He says universities are seeing “a doubling or in some instances a quadrupling of demand”, which is “not sustainable”. He adds that universities are expecting this to get even worse between January and April, when there is usually an increase in self-harm and suicide in the UK.

Student Minds, the mental health charity that runs Student Space, emphasises that it was designed to “complement existing support” for students. “If any student feels like they need some extra support, whether due to feeling isolated or dealing with loss, online learning or other challenges, we welcome them to access our services and resources in the way that suits them best – by text, phone, reading tips or watching videos,” the charity says.

Saranya Thambirajah, a Bristol University student who restarted her first year in the autumn after dropping out last year owing to mental health struggles, says that because of Covid, this year students everywhere are floundering. “Last year I made a lot of my friends through going to lectures, but this year your course-mates are mostly just icons on a computer screen, and that can feel very lonely,” she says.

Like many students, she found two weeks isolating in her room in halls this term, after contracting Covid, particularly hard, and had difficulty focusing on work and staying motivated.

While Thambirajah has not tried to access mental health services at Bristol this year, she says struggling students may not feel able to wait in a long queue for counselling sessions or other support. “When you’re living by yourself and trying to cope with university, things can become overwhelming. If you aren’t offered support quickly it can spiral out of control.”

Tayla McCloud, who is researching a PhD at University College London on students’ mental health, says students are dealing with similar stresses to the rest of the population, including worries about family and money, alongside a unique set of extra anxieties.

“Many students are anxious about how their work will be assessed, some are struggling with assignments or learning online. They might be feeling isolated, disappointed in the university experience and out of control of what is going on around them,” she says.

West says his university focuses on “triaging” requests for help as a way of managing intense demand, flagging up high-risk students who should not be waiting to talk to someone.

He says that while Student Space is well designed and useful, students are still looking to their universities for help. The platform includes regularly updated resources on pandemic-specific topics, including anxieties about going home for Christmas, which West says are particularly helpful for friends and family trying to support a student with mental health issues. He adds that the site is “very valuable” for universities that have only limited mental health services.

But he is nervous about encouraging more students to seek help externally and leaving their university in the dark. “At the moment it is difficult for universities if students are accessing mental health support services outside the university, as it is very difficult to share information due to confidentiality,” he says. “Even if I have a student attending hospital multiple times for poor mental health, I won’t know that unless the student tell us.”

Dr Michelle Morgan, a former academic who advises universities on the student experience, thinks Student Space is “a great national resource”. All services take a little time to build up numbers, she says, and it will play a vital support role this Christmas in helping the students who are left behind on largely closed campuses.

She sees the new platform as an important addition to what is available in universities. “No one would say we should get rid of the Samaritans and only invest in NHS services,” she says. “Some universities do have more developed support than others, but what it has done is taken the pressure off universities to create their own versions in a short space of time.”

But Morgan is quick to point out that the existence of Student Space should not prevent the government from following Wales and Scotland and directly injecting more cash into universities’ mental health services.

Student Minds agrees, saying the team are incredibly proud of Student Space but there also needs to be greater investment in specialist services for students through their universities and student unions. A spokesman says: “Despite the uncertainty of the pandemic, this trusted, confidential support will be available over the entirety of the winter break and the rest of the academic year.”

The OfS says: “These have been really difficult times for students and the whole country. We have emphasised the need for robust systems of mental health and pastoral support to help all students with the difficulties they may face. We funded Student Space to provide additional help where it is needed most. For example, its one-to-one services help where there may be gaps in provision for some students.”

The spokesman added that 56,000 people had visited the website since August, and it had played an important role in signposting students to support already on offer at their university.


Anna Fazackerley

The GuardianTramp

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