Yesterday, World Mental Health Day, prompted universities and colleges across the UK to reflect on their duty of care to students and staff suffering from mental health issues. In a sector dominated by data, it is all too easy to lose sight of the human stories behind the numbers. Improving university support services is not just a vanity project for institutions to improve non-completion rates or student outcomes, it is an essential process that can transform and even save lives.

A recent study by the think tank IPPR revealed suicide is at a record level among students at UK universities and colleges and that the number of students who disclosed a mental health problem in their first year rose fivefold to reach 15,395 in a decade. Higher education institutions need to be supporting these students before mental illness threatens to jeopardise not just their work but also their lives.

In recent months, HEPI has released two reports on the topic of mental health from two very different perspectives:

  • The first report – The invisible problem? Improving students’ mental health – was written by a student, Poppy Brown, and calls for practical measures to be taken to ensure continuity of care for students with mental health issues, such as the ability to be registered at GP surgeries both at home and at university. The report also calls for universities to develop action plans to help them recognise and act on mental health incidences.
  • The second report – The Positive and Mindful University – was written by Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, and the Dean of Psychology Alan Martin. It outlines a 10-point plan towards the creation of ‘positive universities’ to ensure the wellbeing of both staff and students. In practice, this involves universities taking a proactive approach to mental wellbeing, supporting students right from the point of acceptance, providing personal mentors and offering dedicated spaces for relaxation and reflection.

Undoubtedly, progress has been made in removing the stigma from mental health issues and putting the issue near the top of university agendas right across the country. In the past month, Bristol University has invested £1 million on ‘wellbeing advisers‘ who will be embedded in academic departments across the institution. The University of East Anglia (UEA) has also launched a mental health first aid training course to help students spot the early warning signs of mental illness. Further practical measures are nevertheless needed across our universities and colleges which can start to address the social imbalance and unpack the student experience question more effectively.

There is – and never has been – a one-size-fits-all approach to UK higher education, so it would be wrong to expect a one-size-fits-all approach to improving the student experience and providing sufficient support. Different students have different needs and expectations, so the task is on the sector, both individually and collectively, to work out, first, what changes are needed; second, who should be making them; and third, how we are to set about implementing them.

The ongoing reforms to the sector place students at the heart of our universities’ success. In this respect, ensuring our students’ mental wellbeing is the first step to preserving our first-class higher education system, not to mention nurturing the strong and skilled workforce of the future.