Wednesday, 20 February 2013

University mental health: developing welfare support services – live chat

How are universities coping with increased demand for student welfare services? Join our #HElivechat 22 February 12-2pm to discuss access, communication and collaboration
    Mental health young people
Research shows that demand for student mental health and wellbeing services is on the rise. Photograph: Getty Images.
"Students don't come to university for the support staff but to be taught by leading academics." So said Nick Petford, vice-chancellor of the University of Northampton back in 2011 after his university announced staff redundancy plans. He argued there was an "imbalance" in the amount of money spent on support staff compared to that on teaching and learning at the university, and called for it to be "corrected".

Whether you agree or disagree with Petford on the right balance of academic to non-academic staff, when it comes to the provision of student welfare support in particular, recent cuts in services have prompted a much wider debate on student mental health and wellbeing in the UK.

Research from the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) shows that demand for student mental health and wellbeing services in higher education has risen, with as many as 29% of students showing clinical levels of psychological distress. And figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in November 2012 showed female student suicides had risen by 50% in the past five years.

The reason for this? The growing population of both UK and international students, "enormous" changes in student demographics, coupled with social changes, such as the withdrawal of financial support, higher rates of family breakdown and, more recently, economic recession, the RCP report shows.

How are universities coping with these added pressures? What is being done to better communicate and raise awareness of issues around mental health and wellbeing, and does this conversation need to start well before enrollment at university? As Edward Pinkney asks in his blog for the network, whose responsibility really is student mental health?

Welfare support for student mental health is represented by a number of bodies, comprising of a range of disciplines, and reflected in a multiplicity of terms. Providing a set of best practice guidelines for how to develop and operate these services proves difficult because universities work in many different ways.

A lack of resources available to collect regular data to track the progression of universities in supporting students, is also a problem says Pinkney. "Support staff, already overstretched by the demands of their own institutions, are giving up their time to maintain national working groups and membership bodies," he says. "Unless that changes, we might be waiting another nine years before we find out how higher education institutions have progressed".

Recommendations offered by the RCP report include the development of a mental health policy, expansion of services wherever possible, and collaborative healthcare between NHS and universities. But how is this to be achieved in practice? Especially with demand for services extending beyond students to staff as well?

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