NHS and care services must partner with universities to embed mental health support into all areas of student life, says Paul Jenkins

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Alongside other groups of young people our students are facing growing challenges with their mental health. Today’s statistics on student suicides provide a further call to action for both universities and the mental health system.

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With 2.3 million students in the UK at significant risk of developing mental health issues, NHS services have a crucial role to play in ensuring the mental health of the population by tackling issues in care provision head on.

The Office of National Statistics’ figures show an increase in the rate of student suicides during the 12 months ending July 2017. We already knew 94 per cent of universities are reporting an increase in the number of students seeking out mental health support services. The number of students dropping out of university due to ill health has trebled in recent years.

Universities have embarked on an ambitious programme to transform their approach to the mental health of their students and staff via a whole institution framework for change. But NHS and care services must step up too to tackle this issue in a joined up approach.

With half of all young people now accessing higher education before they are 30, students are no longer an elite minority. Not only is the population bigger, it is also more diverse and more reflective of society at large. As a health service, and indeed as a nation, we cannot afford for their needs to go unmet.

There is a strong argument for targeting those in education for preventive care. Our student days are a crucial time for intervention. Half of mental health issues are established by age 14 and 75 per cent by age 24.

The opportunity to improve outcomes for a generation should not be missed. The longer term benefits are clear: graduates generally have higher levels of well being than non-graduates. Ensuring that students are able to complete their studies without disruption due to poor mental health is an investment in a happier, healthier adult population.

As a health and care system, we know that there is much work to be done to improve students’ experience of mental health services.

Identify the barriers

We can identify the barriers preventing people from accessing the care they need. Students tell us that the nature of student life – living between two addresses at home and at university, studying abroad, coming to study from a different country – can mean that they struggle to access continuity of care.

We know that students moving into new areas are often uncertain of what help is available to them.

Through activist third sector organisations such as StudentMinds and through Student’s Unions, they tell us they have had to register with multiple providers and retell their story several times to different clinicians, a process which may mean reliving a traumatic event over and over again.

We also know that certain areas struggle to fund long term mental health provision for the student population

Many arrive at university with a pre-existing mental health condition. We hear stories of records being lost and of people going through the registration process only to be told that the specialist services they require are not available in their new area.

We know that there are significant variations in the way that NHS commissions and delivers care for student populations across the UK. We also know that certain areas struggle to fund long term mental health provision for the student population.

Increase spending

Funding is an important part of the solution.

Prime minister Theresa May named mental health as one of the priorities to be addressed in her recent funding announcement and the Securing the Future report by the IFS and the Health Foundation, commissioned by the NHS Confederation, said that spending on mental health would need to more than double to take the number of people with mental health problems receiving NHS treatment from 40 per cent to 70 per cent.

The Mental Health Network argues that to have true parity of esteem, the mental health sector must be given a bigger proportion of the NHS budget and we hope this will be realised in the details of the funding settlement.

There is a particular issue with the allocation of GP funding for mental health conditions, which means that for some areas with a large student population, and therefore a growing proportion of patients experiencing mental health issues, there are primary care funding gaps of up to 66 per cent.


Perhaps most importantly, there is a pressing need for unified service provision between universities and NHS providers, adequately funded and agreed according to local requirements.

Collaboration is key. NHS England identifies the need to break barriers in care provision to enable better partnership working as a priority in the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health. There is still work to be done on putting this ideal into practice.

Universities are in a great position to provide mental health support with the essential support of healthcare providers. Local partnerships between universities, NHS trusts and local authorities to develop strategies for policy around mental health for students are essential to success and Minding our Future, published last month by Universities UK, set out a framework for how this can be addressed.

Local partnerships between universities, NHS trusts and local authorities to develop strategies for policy around mental health for students are essential to success

NHS mental health services have a responsibility to make our services available to students by working with universities to embed mental health support into all areas of student life. Providing students with a single experience of care, underpinned by shared data, will help manage demand for NHS services more effectively and lead to better long term outcomes.