Blog: Why mental health matters

06 September 2017

By Sarah Stevens, Head of Policy at the Russell Group

Good mental health is essential to a student’s academic success and a rewarding university experience. By supporting and empowering students to maintain or improve their own mental health, universities - working with partners in the NHS, local communities and the third sector - can also help students to develop their self-esteem, resilience and confidence. These qualities are highly sought after by employers and mean students are more likely to have good mental health later in life too.

Universities recognise this, and Universities UK (UUK) has published the next phase in its ongoing work on mental health. Step Change is a new framework setting out how universities can take a whole institution approach to promoting positive mental health for students and staff.

Two Russell Group universities – the University of York and Cardiff University - have joined the project, led by the University of the West of England, piloting the implementation of the whole university approach set out in the framework from this year onwards. This important work builds on the commitment that all our universities are already making to create an environment in which all students are supported to flourish.

Russell Group universities have invested heavily in support services to provide help for students to overcome mental health conditions. They are keen to ensure this investment is based on a robust assessment of need and evidence about what works. Interventions also need to be properly evaluated.

There is evidence that counselling can be very successful in helping students to overcome mental health issues. At the University of Oxford, for example, 87% of students using the counselling service showed significant improvement in their mental health and were much less likely to consider suspending their studies.

Our members are also committed to evaluating the effectiveness of preventative interventions to support undergraduate students. For example:

  • the University of Cambridge has been pioneering work to understand the extent to which mindfulness can promote resilience and help students to deal with exam stress
  • researchers at the University of York are studying how to help student nurses to self-manage stress and increase their knowledge of mental effectiveness.

It is critical that decision-making is robust with regards to where provision of specialist support should take place. This could be within the university or, where more appropriate, by referring students to NHS services. One of the central elements of the new framework is a commitment to partnership working with a range of external bodies including NHS commissioners and services, local authorities, and the third sector. Of course, working with student representatives to tailor initiatives and raise awareness is also key.

The University of Bristol has pioneered a Vulnerable Students' Support Service which coordinates support for the most vulnerable students working closely with staff in academic schools and with students. It also provides support through the most appropriate service from across the university and/or from the NHS dependent on an assessment of need. Bristol is reviewing the way in which students are supported by staff with specialist expertise with a view to ensuring individuals with the right expertise are available in each individual school and faculty, and not just centrally.

Mental health continues to be a policy priority across political parties and all four nations of the UK. Universities remain committed to investing in this area, evaluating impact and sharing best practice. In order to deliver the most effective forms of support, an informed and joined-up approach is needed, with universities working across their own institutions and with a range of external partners. We recognise that universities cannot solve the problem of mental health alone, but they can and do work tirelessly to ensure they create an environment which enables and supports students to flourish.


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