Minister urges university leaders ensure student mental health is top priority

Universities should take the place of parents and ensure they offer good mental health support to students to stop them becoming overwhelmed and “falling between the cracks”, a minister has said.

Sam Gyimah has called on universities to do a better job of supporting students, saying mental health should be a “top priority”.

The Universities Minister is urging institutions to sign up to a new mental health charter, warning that failing to deal with the issue risks “failing an entire generation of students”.

At some universities, around one in four students are seeing, or waiting to see, counselling services, according to the Department for Education (DfE).

Mr Gyimah (pictured) said: “We want mental health support for students to be a top priority for the leadership of all our universities.

“Progress can only be achieved with their support – I expect them to get behind this important agenda as we otherwise risk failing an entire generation of students.

“Universities should see themselves as ‘in loco parentis’ – not infantilising students, but making sure support is available where required.

“It is not good enough to suggest that university is about the training of the mind and nothing else, as it is too easy for students to fall between the cracks and to feel overwhelmed and unknown in their new surroundings.

“This is not a problem that can be solved overnight, but we need to do a better job of supporting students than is happening at the moment.”

The charter is part of a package of measures outlined by Mr Gyimah which are aimed at improving mental health among young people.

Others include looking at whether universities could introduce “opt-in” systems which would allow them to contact a specific person – such as a parent – if a student was having mental health issues.

Ministers and institutions are expected to explore how such an idea could work – for example asking students to opt in, or out, of such a system when they start their course.

The charter, which will set out key standards that universities must meet on areas such as early intervention, providing training and promoting healthy environments and behaviours, is being drawn up with charities and higher education groups.

Institutions will be recognised for meeting all eight of the criteria in the charter.

Mental health charity Student Minds will lead the development of the charter, working with other bodies including the Office for Students, the National Union of Students, Universities UK (UUK) and the UPP Foundation, the DfE said.

The charity’s chief executive, Rosie Tressler, said: “Together we will transform the futures of the 2.3 million students that are in Higher Education, whilst equipping the doctors, teachers and business leaders of the future to continue the positive change in wider society.”

Professor Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, Bristol, and chair of UUK’s mental health in higher education advisory group, said that mental health is increasingly seen as a priority by universities, and that many are implementing a UK framework on the issue which is “designed to encourage university leaders to take a whole university approach to this issue by making mental health a strategic priority and a core part of all university activities”.

He added: “Universities cannot address these complex challenges alone. Partnership working with students, staff, government, schools, colleges and employers, the NHS, local authorities and third sector organisations is vital if we are to help students and staff to thrive.

“We still have a long way to go and we look forward to working with the Department for Education and others to deliver the change that’s needed and that all students deserve to see.”

Student mental health has become a key issue in recent times.

Concerns were raised earlier this week about suicide among university students as new figures showed rates are higher than they were a decade ago.

Data released for the first time by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that there were 95 deaths in 2016/17, which equates to a rate of 4.7 deaths per 100,000 higher education students.

In 2006/07, there were 77 deaths, a rate of 3.8 per 100,000.

The experimental statistics, which covered England and Wales, do show that suicide rates among students have not risen consistently year on year.

Campaigners said they wanted to understand why there has been a rise, and who is most at risk.

Labour’s shadow higher education minister Gordon Marsden said: “We have serious concerns about the lack of detail in today’s announcement, although steps to address student mental health issues are of course welcome.

“The University Mental Health Charter must have NUS and student representative bodies closely involved as well as the Office for Students. Government must also ensure there is far greater link-up between child and adolescent mental health services and universities.

“If this government really believes in the importance of student mental health they should be investing in it directly rather than simply relying on grants from outside organisations.”

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